Patriots

Ryan not buying talk of Patriots offensive struggles

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Ryan not buying talk of Patriots offensive struggles

FOXBORO -- Don't talk to Rex Ryan about Tom Brady having a bad day.

Don't mention Brady's two interceptions against the Giants and his 10 on the season. Don't ask if uncharacteristic poor decision-making last week is a sign of future trouble for the Patriots. Same goes for Brady's numbers: 28-for-49 passing, two sacks and 5-for-15 on third down.

Forget about selling Patriots' offensive woes because the Jets coach isn't buying.

"I think it's funny, because we're saying that New England's struggling," Ryan said via conference call. "I think they had 450 yards against us, 450 against the Giants or something like that it was 448. It's not that this team is struggling.

"This is one of the premier offenses in the league. I don't know how good Green Bay is, I haven't played them this year, but obviously New England is about as good as it gets that we face."

The fact Brady has more than doubled last year's interception total isn't impressive to Ryan. He says it only points to how tremendous the quarterback's season was last year; the pass attempts without a pick record, 358, can't be replicated.

"I think you could do a lot worse than having Tom Brady as your quarterback," Ryan said. He's clearly the best quarterback in the league now that Peyton's not playing."

Hang on -- is that a backhanded compliment? Maybe in the sense of competition. Ryan is often effusively complimentary of the Patriots while simultaneously expressing the desire to crush them. But the praise he heaps on Bill Belichick and New England is sincere. Especially with a Week 4 loss at Gillette not far in the past. The Jets vaunted defense let up 30 points in that game.

"With Brady you can't run traditional coverages -- you've got to get to him," Ryan said. "You can't just let him sit back and throw or he'll absolutely carve you up. That's obviously a priority for any team that's going up against the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, so that's no great shock. You definitely want to make him uncomfortable back there. If it's a 7-on-7 or it turns into what we call "pass-(drilling)" then we've got no chance to beat them."

The plan will have to include limiting receiver Wes Welker. If possible. Ryan was over the moon about Welker's production in 2011, saying the player presents few flaws or attack points. And there are numbers to back up the coach.

Welker tied an NFL record for three games with eight catches, 150 yards and a touchdown. He also set a franchise record for receiving yards on September 25 in Buffalo (217) and currently leads the NFl in total receiving yards (960). Ryan views Welker and Brady as two peas in an offensively devastating pod.

"If we think there's vulnerability in a player then we'll go out it. But if you look at . . . Wes Welker's caught 100 balls I think already. He's the hardest guy to get a fumble from.

"The guy . . . he's phenomenal. He's breaking all kinds of records; he stays on this pace he'll break almost every record."

But for all the gushing, Ryan must see a weakness in Welker somewhere, right?

The receiver looked largely untouchable until Week 6 when Dallas held him to just 45 yards. He was basically a non-factor until Brady's final drive of the game. The following week in New England's 25-17 loss to Pittsburgh Welker had 39 yards on six catches. Time of possession -- barely 20 minutes -- was a factor, but the two had more incomplete connections than first-down gains. Welker's 136 receiving yards in the 24-20 loss to the Giants don't show Antrel Rolle's fantastic coverage of Welker before Rolle suffered an injury.

Ryan says he doesn't doesn't care. He doesn't see teams having much success with Number 83.

"I don't know about that. Maybe we need to trade for Antrel Rolle," he joked. "Welker, I think, he can beat anybody in the league. He's one of the best receivers in the game. Now, I'll take my corner on him, Darelle Revis, but I think he's clearly the best in the league. I think Welker, if he's not the best receiver in the league, he's certainly in the top two or three."

That final push against the Cowboys was the go-ahead drive. Brady went no-huddle, shotgun, Welker. The last of his three catches in those crucial two minutes was a six-yard reception over the middle to put New England on the Dallas 8. Part of what makes him so dangerous is this ability to be there for Brady in clutch spots. New York probably wants to take away that one, 73-yard bomb he caught in Week 4 to say he only had four receptions for 51. Thing is, you can't take it away. Three plays later Deion Branch caught a two-yard touchdown pass -- Welker's catch hurt. It mattered.

That's why Rex Ryan has so much respect for Brady and for Welker. It is the exception, less the rule, that those two are silenced.

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.