Patriots

Giardi: Patriots find a simple fix on defense

Giardi: Patriots find a simple fix on defense

NEW ORLEANS -- After giving up 42 points in the season opener, Bill Belichick gave the Patriots multiple days off. When they returned, they were given a simplified approach on defense designed to ease the mental burden on the players and allow them to play more free.

By and large, that formula worked Sunday in their 36-20 victory over the Saints.

“We just played fast and physical,” said safety Duron Harmon. “That was one of the main things: simplifying the game plan a little bit. We were getting lined up and playing. Just doing that got our confidence going early.”

PATRIOTS 36, SAINTS 20

Part of that simplification involved the defensive backs. Instead of having their cornerbacks flip sides or play almost strictly matchup football, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia limited some of that movement, keeping Stephon Gilmore largely on one side and -- prior to his injury -- Eric Rowe on the other. Yes, Eric Rowe, who earned the start instead of Malcolm Butler.

“It really just helps if I’m nickel role -- whoever’s out there is out there -- I can just make my call and that’s the play we’re running instead of if we’re in a match mode and Malcolm could be inside (or outside). With [Drew] Brees, they go fast on offense. We just simplified the game plan so we could play faster.”

Butler wasn’t “benched.” He played quite a bit prior to Rowe’s departure and at times played very well, including separating the football from second-year wideout Michael Thomas on a deep crossing route. But he was also victimized on the Brandon Coleman touchdown that brought the Saints within 10 points in the second quarter, 20-10. 

Butler was not seen by this reporter following the game. This, after a week in which he was also not seen kicking around in the locker room during media availability. A source close to Butler told me not to read into it, “No distractions. And what is left to say? He's a Patriot right now.” That last part is an obvious reference the an odd offseason that saw then then-restricted free agent Butler visit the Saints and have both sides talk about a potential deal. A deal did happen between the two teams; it just didn’t involve Butler. Now, in Week 2, Butler doesn’t start? Rowe said he didn’t notice any issues with Butler leading up to the game.

“No, I didn’t feel through the week, or Malcolm didn’t feel that there was anything uncomfortable-wise,” he said. “I remember [switching roles] last year with Logan Ryan. It really doesn’t make a difference.”

That remains to be seen, but Butler played with energy and his usual passion, indicative of him being “the same guy” that he’s always been, according to teammates. And clearly, though Brees ended up getting his yards -- he always does -- his team only scored two touchdowns and converted just 33 percent of its third-down conversions (4-of-12). That’s another example of improved play from Week 1 to Week 2, and the efforts made to clean up some communication issues that plagued the Pats in that loss to the Chiefs.

“Oh yeah, definitely a lot smoother, a lot better than last week, but like you said, it’s not where we want it to be,” noted Harmon. “It’s the second game. We know we’re going to have some mistakes out there on the field that we can learn from. i’d rather learn from them this way than the last week.”

“We pretty much know on the sideline if we get a certain situation how we’re going to play it, so that’s not really the issue,” said Gilmore. “We just gotta keep getting comfortable with each other, know where our help is and where each other is and make plays.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.