Patriots

Slater loving WR reps, but happy anywhere

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Slater loving WR reps, but happy anywhere

FOXBORO -- Anyone watching Patriots training camp Thursday probably saw a depleted receiving corps by the end of the session. No Brandon Lloyd, no Deion Branch, no Jabar Gaffney.
One guy saw something else. A rare opportunity.
Matthew Slater reaped most of the reps that were left on the field by the trio of absentees. As a listed wide receiver who had just one catch in 16 games last season, he was more than happy to get extra targets this week.
"I'm excited," said Slater. "Whatever I'm position I'm in, just trying to get better. Every year I feel like I've had such great veterans to learn from and the list goes on this year. So many guys at that position have been there, done that. I'm just trying to learn. And I love playing football so I'm having fun."
The windfall of passes might not last long. New England has more than enough receivers in camp when everyone is healthy, and Slater knows the numbers will get whittled down come September.
But it's not the end of the world. The 26-year old has plenty of value elsewhere.
"Obviously, special teams has been my ticket, how I've paid my bills," Slater smiled. "And I still feel like I have a lot of room for improvement. There are a lot of things I can do better and special teams coach Scott O'Brien is staying on me, challenging me to get better.
"At receiver, safety, or offensive line -- wherever it may be -- there's a lot to learn. I haven't spent as much time playing those positions so obviously there's a lot of room for improvement."
The offensive line reference was just a crack, but Slater did indeed get a few reps at safety last season. That shouldn't be necessary this year with the additions of Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory --which is important to Slater. The special teams captain needs to pour his energy into helping New England improve areas like 2011's 29th-ranked kick return.
"We understand that we struggled, to say the least, there last year. It wasn't any one person's fault, it was the whole unit. We realized that's something we really have to focus on and try to do a better job of setting up Tom Brady and the offense this year."
The pressure is on.
"We have to stick with it. We can't get frustrated, we can't get down on ourselves. But at the same time, we have to keep challenging ourselves, keep working on our techniques. And it goes back to fundamentals. That's the great thing about training camp: You focus on the fundamentals and the little things, and those little things hopefully will give us a chance to make some plays during the season."
Even if the playmaking potential doesn't fall to him at receiver on game days, Slater will find opportunity somewhere, and love every minute of it.

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.