Behind the scenes work triggered Patriots' defensive improvement

Behind the scenes work triggered Patriots' defensive improvement

FOXBORO – The annual improvement of the Patriots is inevitable.

Defense plays like it’s blindfolded for the first four weeks then, with a snap of the fingers, is suddenly competent or actually …. good?

“Hey. Wow. All fixed. That was fast.”

On Sunday, after the Patriots knocked off the Chargers, Bill Belichick once again praised his team’s work ethic. It was the fourth time I can recall him going all in on that topic. When compared to the post-Chiefs laments from veterans about a lack of urgency and seriousness, it’s obvious the real improvement that’s going on is out of our sight.


“We’ve been going here for six weeks of preseason and eight regular season games,” Belichick said. “We’ve been playing a lot of football. Every week it’s been a grind whether it’s going back to the preseason scrimmages, whether it’s the preseason games. We’ve been at it here for a long time. I ask these guys to come in every day and put in a hard day of preparation, practice, training, film study and so forth. I’d say I’ve been impressed with the way they’ve done that and have been able to grind it out day after day. It’s not easy.

“We don’t mind doing it; I’m not saying that,” he continued. “But still, it’s hard, and every team has got good players. Every team has difficult schemes. Every team requires a lot of communication and coordination to get plays right and to get situations right. I just meant it in terms of just week after week after week or day after day after day or hour after hour, coming in at eight in the morning and grinding through it until 4:30, 5:00 at night. Those guys are working hard and it’s paying off, but they’re working hard. They’re grinding it.”

Every team works, no doubt. And it’s a hard road from July to January (and beyond) for all of them. But the day-to-day in New England is hard relative to other teams. And that’s when it’s going good. When the defense is playing at an embarrassing level as the Patriots were for the first four weeks, it has to feel for the coaches and players like they are actually living that dream of showing up to work in their underwear. That ain’t gonna stand with Belichick, his coaches or his players. That the franchise is astute enough to hire guys who can take the extra work and not buckle is a credit to their scouting and personnel staffs.

But in the end, it’s the players. They spent the time to get it fixed. Never a doubt, said safety Duron Harmon.

“I know the guys we have here, I know the kind of work we put in each week at practice in the weight room after practice in the classroom,” he said. "I knew eventually it would come around. Did it come around as fast as we wanted it to? No. But we’re making strides right now and we need to keep doing what we’re doing.”

The change, he said is, “Consistency. It really comes down to everybody being on the same page all the time, not one guy playing one coverage then the other 10 guys playing another. Everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s communicating, everybody’s talking, everybody’s playing with good energy, playing fast and physical. That’s really been the change.”

While the defense has gotten itself upright, the New England offense – which carried the team early – has been uncharacteristically bogging down.

“We didn’t finish (drives) off,” said Tom Brady after the Patriots scored just one touchdown despite seven drives reaching the Chargers 25 or deeper. “I think we just have to do a better job of that. I know I’ve said that about 100 times this year, but it’s tough. I mean, we’re trying. It’s just the execution is coming up a little short in critical times.

“We’re not scoring as many points as we’re capable of scoring,” he later added. “I know that. I wish there was a simple answer for it, and the simple word would be execution. I mean, it’s just throwing and catching and blocking and running and doing all those things, staying on track in the red area, but we have more opportunity out there. I mean, we know it. We just haven’t done a great job finishing off the last three or four weeks, but hopefully we’re going to get back to it, and I’m sure we’ll watch a lot of tape and try to evaluate a lot of things that we’ve done and try to build on those things. I wish it would be better, but we’re not. But, we’ll just keep going after it. We’ll keep working hard like we always do, and hopefully it’ll be better here in the next couple of weeks.”

Harmon harbors no doubt the offense will get it straightened out.

“They carried us the first quarter of the season,” he said. “They’re gonna get the ball moving and they’re gonna score. As long as we don’t give up more points than they score, we’ll take it. That’s what we’re gonna keep aiming for.”

At 6-2, the Patriots now have their bye then a trip to Denver followed by a visit to Mexico City to play the Raiders. It’s a key stretch and – possibly – one that could galvanize the team even more as it plans to spend a week in Colorado Springs prior to going to Mexico to play the Raiders.

“Offensively, it hasn’t been horrible. It just hasn’t been up to what we’re capable of doing,” said Brady. “I think we come in every week and we say, ‘We missed this opportunity, we missed this opportunity.’ It’s not one play, it’s not one player, it’s just all of us collectively trying harder, doing better and making the plays happen when we need to make it happen. Hopefully, our best games are still ahead of us. You know, that’s what our goal is.”

It’s a goal they usually hit. And it’s not because of the work on Sunday but all the days before.


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. 


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.