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.”

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Despite 'a lot of urgency,' Patriots don't panic before game-winning pick

Despite 'a lot of urgency,' Patriots don't panic before game-winning pick

Who saw that ending coming? Anyone? Well, if the Patriots are to be believed, they had a pretty good idea that the Steelers were a threat to have something up their sleeve as time wound down on what turned out to be a thrilling 27-24 victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The ill-advised ‘fake spike throw a freakin’ slant to a well-covered Eli Rogers’ wasn’t the smartest play ever cooked up in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s apparently very smokey lab. But that’s what Pittsburgh decided the situation called for, down 3 with 9 ticks left on the clock. They were hell-bent on walking away a winner and instead departed the field slack-jawed and silent, likely having cost themselves a chance at home field throughout the playoffs and maybe, just maybe, a shot at the Super Bowl.

“I think just practice execution turns into game reality,” said an elated Duron Harmon, who intercepted that final throw. “ We’ve seen it before. Everybody didn’t panic. Nobody was out there thinking they didn’t know what to do. We just played our rules, played good football and it turned into a good play for us.”

“The fake spike is something we see all the time,” said Devin McCourty. “I think all great quarterbacks do that. If they catch you sleeping and get an easy play, they’re going to try to do it. You could see us yelling and screaming the coverage, trying to get the guys up and get set because we knew there was a chance. If they spike it, they spike it.”

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The tape told a little something different. Only Trey Flowers actually attempts to play the play up front, eventually jumping in the air to dissuade Ben Roethlisberger from throwing the pass. On the back side of the play, Stephon Gilmore barely moves while Pat Chung appears lost and then lets up. Even Duron Harmon, who ended up with the ball falling into his lap for the game-preserving interception, didn’t react at the snap of the ball. But cornerback Eric Rowe did. The Pats should thank goodness for that. He deflected the ball that ended up in Harmon’s hands.

“A lot of urgency on that last play,” he said, describing the play in detail. “I see ‘em rushing to the ball. I see Matty P (Patricia) giving the call. I’m the star (the nickel cornerback). No one is on the outside. I’m like, forget it, I need to go outside and cover ‘em up. Everybody was in panic mode trying to get lined up and I see Big Ben fake it and I’m like ‘oh they’re running a play.’ I get my eyes back on the receiver and see him doing like a slant or a pop pass. I didn’t really think he was going to throw it because I was on his hip. He threw and I said ‘I just need to break this up’ and then boom, and I honestly like - it tipped off and if they caught ‘oh my god,’ but we came down with it. I was ecstatic.”

Coming down with it was Harmon. One of his nicknames is “The Closer” for good reason. He’s had a knack for sealing games with an interception but this one may have been the biggest of his career.

“Just prepared, man. Like everyone on our team. I just prepare. Credit to the entire defense for playing until the end. To all the guys,” said Harmon.

“It’s not by accident,” said Matthew Slater, who’s seen his share of big plays. “The guy prepares himself in that way. He respects the game of football, gives it everything he has every day and comes in here and he works hard to be in position. When guys are always around the ball, it’s not by accident.”

No, it is not. Never seems to be with this team, who once again have put themselves in position to do special things come January and - they hope - February in Minnesota.

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