Patriots

Less talk, more action needed from Pats secondary

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Less talk, more action needed from Pats secondary

SEATTLE -- The Patriots secondary has a mantra: "We need to make more plays."
At some point, they'll need to stop saying it and start doing it.
The Seahawks had 11 passing plays of 10 or more yards in their 24-23 win over New England Sunday. Quarterback Russell Wilson, a rookie, completed 16 of 27 passes, including three bombs that traveled 46, 50, and 51 yards. Two of those deep balls went for touchdowns.
After the game, that tired old refrain spun around and around.
"It's just that simple. That's the bottom line: We've got to make more plays to help this team win," said cornerback Devin McCourty.
"It's disappointing. We could have played better. Seattle did a great job, just kept fighting and trying to make plays. We've got to play better."
Nobody is arguing.
New England's secondary is the imperfect cog in an otherwise sleek machine. Sometimes, the cog works OK, like when McCourty grabbed two interceptions against Buffalo. Even then, as with Denver last week, the opposing quarterback was allowed more than 300 receiving yards and at least three touchdowns.
But the Patriots offense rolled on in both weeks because of its high-powered offense and defensive front seven. Two victories drowned out the groaning of that uncertain cog.
Until this weekend.
A hip injury has sidelined safety Steve Gregory since Week 4. When Patrick Chung sustained a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter and left the game, that left rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner to sure up the back end. That's when Seattle's quarterback and Sidney Rice pounced on New England with a 46-yard game-winner.
"I got beat -- plain and simple," said Wilson. "We were in simple coverage. Rice made a play and I didn't.
"I'm held accountable just like everybody else on this team. I don't expect them to take no slack on me because I'm a rookie. That's what my team put me out there for -- they expect me to make the play. And I should make the play."
There's always the threat of benching.
Starting cornerback Kyle Arrington was booted on the third series for rookie Alfonzo Dennard. A 24-yard touchdown surrendered by Arrington in the first quarter appeared to be a last straw of some kind.
But what do you do when the entire unit gives up 293 yards to the NFL's 31st-ranked passing offense? Bench them all?
"Gotta do better," said Arrington. "I don't have much to say. I can only speak for myself. Gotta do better. I will be better and we'll work our ass off this week and get ready for New York."
All they need to do is make more plays.

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.