Patriots

Patriots prepare for Saints with situational football

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Patriots prepare for Saints with situational football

FOXBORO -- The Patriots were given the day off on Saturday, but as wide receiver Donte' Stallworth pointed out on Sunday, that day off isn't what it seems.

"The first thing about being here, there are no off-days," said Stallworth after Sunday's session.

With the first preseason game on Thursday night, and practices scheduled with the New Orleans Saints the days leading up to that game, the Patriots certainly can't afford to have any "off-days."

The joint practices will be refreshing for both teams in the dog days of training camp, as Stallworth pointed out on Sunday.

"It's always fun to be able to play against, or even practice against other teams," said Stallworth. "After a while, your teammates, they start to know what you're doing, and vice-versa. Whenever you bring in a new team, it's always good to be able to compete against a different team."

While practicing and competing against their own teammates, Stallworth and the Patriots have been focusing on situational drills to make sure that they are prepared for anything that comes their way. That was evident on Sunday, as Tom Brady tried to work in a fake-spike in the no-huddle offense. His pass, deep down the left sideline, however, was overthrown, intended for Stallworth.

"Bill does a great job of putting us through situations," said Stallworth. "It's interesting, the way he does his training camps. That's why, every situation, we're always prepared for it, because Coach puts us through every single situation that can come up in a game, every situation possible."

Brady's passion was shining bright on Sunday, but not in the way he would have liked. Brady's frustrations with receiver routes and blocking forced him to yell, "What are we doing?!?!" toward the end of practice.

"That's how he's always been, as long as I can remember," said Stallworth. "Nothing's going to be perfect, but if you strive for perfection, then you're going to be pretty damn good. And that's one thing that Bill always preaches to us. And Tommy's that same way. He's a fiery, passionate guy. And when things aren't going right, things that we've done before aren't going right, then Brady's going to let us know. He's the leader of this team, and guys follow his lead."

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.