Patriots

Patriots-Saints Q2: Patriots secondary steps up

840753.jpg

Patriots-Saints Q2: Patriots secondary steps up

FOXBORO -- The Patriots first team defense continued to work up a good lather in the second quarter, putting forth a good effort against Saints quarterbacks not named Drew Brees. The highlight was an interception by Steve Gregory, but before we get into that, here are our observations from the quarter in chronological order:

Jermaine Cunningham subbed in for Rob Ninkovich at left end on the first-team defense to start the quarter. Later in the quarter he got a few reps on the defensive line next to Chandler Jones, Marcus Harrison and Trevor Scott.

Brandon Deaderick also got significant work in the second quarter. He played on the nose in between Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork with Jones and Cunningham on the ends.

Chase Daniel completed long pass plays to Courtney Roby and Michael Higgins for 12 and 15 yards, respectively, driving the Saints deep into Patriots territory. Then it fell apart for Daniel. His pass was tipped into the air by Jerod Mayo and then juggled by Steve Gregory five times before he secured it for the interception. Daniel came off the field, holding his helmet, knowing he'd blown an opportunity to give his team some points. Nice athletic play by both Mayo and Gregory.

Brian Hoyer completed three of his four passes on the following drive, but he didn't exactly look comfortable. He threw one bad ball to Alex Silvestro that fell incomplete. None of the completions went for more than five yards, and he had a chance to get the ball to Julian Edelman in space in the flat, but floated a pass instead of getting it there with zip, which allowed a defender to close in and make a quick tackle.

Zoltan Mesko got absolutely run over by Martez Wilson on a punt attempt. Bad job by Wilson there, who showed very little body control after plowing through blocker Shane Vereen. Mesko shook off the hit like a champ. He later coffin-cornered a punt that went out of bounds around the eight yard line.

Tough start to the night for Ryan Mallett, but he picked things up by the end of the quarter. His first pass was intended for Jabar Gaffney, who hadn't seen a target to that point in the night, but was late and off target high. His second pass was batted down by Akiem Hicks. He hit his third pass to Donte' Stallworth for one yard.

Mallett's arm got hit twice as he threw passes on the Patriots' next drive. One fell to the turf, the other floated in the air long enough for Marquis Johnson to pick it off. Like we said, tough start. After the pick, he was 3-8 for 30 yards and an interception. In Mallett's defense, Dan Connolly got dominated at the line by Hicks, who got to Mallett to upset the throw.

Chung made an interception off Sean Canfield, but he didn't have to do much for it. With Devin McCourty playing underneath Roby, Chung sat back and waited for Canfield to throw it between the "2" and the "5" on his jersey.

Mallett looked his best in the Patriots hurry-up offense. With 45 seconds he drove the Patriots from their 11 yard line and put them in position to kick a 53-yard field goal (which Stephen Gostkowski missed wide left). Mallett completed passes to Woodhead (3 yards), Gaffney (9 yards), Edelman (23 yards) and Woodhead again (20 yards). Seemed like for Mallett, the more he was allowed to react and play fast, the better off he was.

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. 

MORE PATRIOTS

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.