Patriots

Welker: Brady 'wants to do great and he is great'

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Welker: Brady 'wants to do great and he is great'

FOXBORO -- Thursday was not a good day to be Tom Brady's chin strap.
During the portion of practice in which the Patriots worked on their hurry-up offense, he dropped back and hit safety Steve Gregory square in the chest with a pass intended for someone else. Gregory plucked the ball out of the air and ran for a lengthy interception return before he was herded out of bounds. Brady ripped at the white piece of plastic hanging from the sides of his helmet and took a knee among the other offensive players who were sitting out of the drill. His no-huddle drive had been cut short, and he wasn't happy about it.
"He was pretty fired up," said Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. "He's his own biggest critic. As much as coach even stays on him and everyone else, he's his own worst enemy sometimes. It's great to see. He cares. He wants to do great, and he is great."
Welker's right. Brady is great. Almost all the time. When he's been at his best during training camp, the ball comes out of his hand quickly, and it almost always finds the mitts of his intended target. Whether he's squeezing a pass in a tight spot on the goal line or lofting a fade route to one of his outside receivers, the ball usually ends up where it's supposed to be.
That's what made Brady's day on Thursday stand out so glaringly. He was long with a few of his passes. Others were deflected by defenders. In one stretch during 11-on-11 play, he went 1-for-6, with his last five passes falling incomplete. One was batted down by the defensive line. The next was too long for receiver Britt Davis. After that he fired a pass through Welker's hands on a bubble route. Following an incompletion to avoid a "sack" by Rob Ninkovich and an overthrow to an open Rob Gronkowski, Brady's series was over.
On the sidelines, before the first-team offense's next set of plays, Brady worked on hitting Aaron Hernandez with passes from just five yards away. Those kinds of short passes weren't the ones he was missing during practice, but it was clear he wouldn't let a bad five minutes in practice ruin the rest of his afternoon. He wasn't standing and watching, letting his frustration stew as he waited for his turn to throw. He was making the most of his time while on the field. Welker said that -- good day or bad -- Brady is constantly trying to improve his connection with his receivers.
"I think it's something you constantly work on," said Welker. "You try and get on the same page, understand. I try to win all my routes and know that he's going to put the ball where he needs to put it. It's an ongoing deal to get that chemistry."
Brady threw the interception to Gregory just a few minutes later. And though he was angered by it, Welker said those plays help make Brady the quarterback he is.
"It's good to see he's human sometimes," said Welker. "Everybody has bad plays out there. It's how you bounce back from them, how you go out there and compete and keep fighting and how you get after it out there. He's always understanding that and knowing if he makes a bad play he's going to come back ten times better the next time."

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.