Patriots

Pats quiet on distractions

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Pats quiet on distractions

FOXBORO -- It came from the empty spaces in front of Patriots lockers, through the swinging doors leading into the team's training room, and from the throng of players who whizzed by the media only to vanish a moment later: silence.

Even for the Patriots -- keepers of a particularly quiet locker room -- they seemed hushed on Friday.

The news that offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien had accepted the head coaching job at Penn State broke on Thursday night, and the Patriots weren't talking.

That is, of course, the Patriots way.

Apparently, word was passed down from coach Bill Belichick to leave the subject untouched. The players -- as they so often do -- took heed. Of the scant few who were wrangled by reporters, some admitted that they were instructed not to comment. Some politely declined. Others were mum, promising interviews at a later date. Each had his own way of keeping quiet, but their silence was as uniform as the jerseys they wear on Sundays.

A few strayed from the plan. Julian Edelman spoke (and was thanked profusely by the media). Offensive lineman Nick McDonald spoke, too, but he didn't say much.

"Just another work day," McDonald insisted. "Come to work. Do our jobs."

With that, the hulking 300-pounder disappeared, leaving little more than the muffled sounds of hip-hop music coming from the nearby Patriots weight room to fill the air.

There is a reason for their tightened lips. It is the Patriots way. It is the Patriots staying on task. All season they preached focus on the next game, the next opponent, and they followed that road to a 13-3 record, an AFC East championship and the No. 1 seed throughout the AFC playoffs.

They weren't about to veer off course on Friday. They weren't about get bogged down in questions on O'Brien's impending move.

It's a policy that can be frustrating for media or fans starved for sound bites, but it's not without its benefits at a time of year when distractions can quickly derail a season. It's easy to accuse the Patriots of being dull or uncooperative. But not focused? Not them.

Their concentration -- even if it's an act, the script passed down by Belichick -- always appears to be finely tuned. On Friday, in the face of what could be perceived as a distraction, they pulled the rip cord and deployed the silent treatment. As a team, they made (almost) no comment about their fiery coach undertaking a high-profile gig just before the start of the playoffs.

Crisis averted. Continue on the highlighted route to the Divisional Playoff game.

Today at 11:30 am, O'Brien will be announced as the Penn State head coach. When the Patriots speak with the media next week, they may touch on O'Brien's new job because it will be official. But more importantly to them, by then they will have a definitive opponent -- either Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Denver -- and that's where their focus will lie. That's what they'll be more likely to comment on, not who's coming or who's going on the coaching staff.

Cincinnati. Pittsburgh. Denver. For better or worse, that's the Patriots way.

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.