Patriots

Patriots always recover from 2-2 starts, but how much will they this season?

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Patriots always recover from 2-2 starts, but how much will they this season?

The Brady era Patriots start 2-2 nearly as often as they win the Super Bowl. They’ve actually won the Super Bowl in two seasons that featured 2-2 starts. So yeah, boom. Super Bowl champions. 

The unexpected lackluster results through four games, including a loss to the still-undefeated Chiefs and a defeat at the hands of the now 3-1 Panthers, is not unprecedented. The aforementioned .500 starts came in 2003, 2005, 2012 and 2014. 

With fewer people labeling the 2017 Patriots as sure-fire Super Bowl champions as they were in the offseason (my Monopoly money is still on them winning it all), the more immediate hope for Pats fans is that the team will simply improve. It should come as no surprise that those other 2-2 starts suggest they will. 

The most recent 2-2 start, 2014, saw the Pats allow 90 points over the first four games, including 33 points to the Dolphins in a season-opening loss and 41 points in the infamous Monday night drubbing against the Chiefs. They straightened things out in short order, as they allowed more than 23 points just twice the rest of the season as they won 10 of their final 12 games. 

In 2003, the Pats were outscored by a 77-71 mark over the first four weeks. Though they allowed 30 points to the Titans in a Week 5 win, they went on to allow just 161 points the rest of the season, including three shutouts and five games with six or fewer points allowed. That team, of course, ran the table from Week 5 on and won the Super Bowl. 

Those are the stories of the 2-2 teams that got their acts together quickly. The other two -- 2005 and 2012 -- didn’t. The 2005 Pats continued to lose every other game en route to a 4-4 start. The 2012 team started 3-3. 

It’s not difficult to see what the 2003 and 2014 teams had in common and what traits were shared between the 2005 and 2012 teams. The 2003 and 2014 Pats both had strong talent on defense and were working in a star free agent in the secondary (Rodney Harrison in 2003, Darrelle Revis in 2014). The 2005 and 2012 Pats had questions on defense that ultimately weren’t answered. 

Case in point: Here’s where the 2003 and 2014 Pats finished defensively compared to the 2005 and 2012 teams: 

2003: first in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed (finished 14-2, won Super Bowl)
2014: eighth in points allowed, 13th in yards allowed (finished 12-4, won Super Bowl)

2005: 17th in points allowed, 26th in yards allowed (finished 10-6, lost in divisional round)
2012: ninth in points allowed, 25h in yards allowed (finished 12-4, lost AFC championship)

So the question is whether this defense will follow the route of the 2003 and 2014 teams or the 2005 and 2012 ones. Their talent in the secondary suggests a finish like the 2014 group isn’t out of the question, but then again the 128 points they’ve allowed through four games is far and away the most of these 2-2 teams (20 more than the 2005 team, which allowed 108 points through four games; the 2003 team allowed 77 and the 2014 squad allowed 90). 

The good news is that even in the case of those lesser defenses, they greatly improved after their slow starts. The 2012 and 2005 teams both allowed much fewer points per game over the final 12 than over the first four, with the 2005 team allowing over a touchdown less (27 points allowed per game over the first four games, 19.16 points allowed per game over the final 12). 

So the Patriots have been here before, and they’ve improved after. The question is how much they will this season, and how soon. 

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 

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“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.

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