Patriots

Butler forgets past, ignores future, focuses in on the present

Butler forgets past, ignores future, focuses in on the present

FOXBORO -- Malcolm Butler wants you to know he’s happy in Foxboro, even as the clock ticks toward an end date on his time here.

“Most definitely. Most definitely,” he told me, repeating those words as he often does. “This is where I’m at. I always remember where I came from. I am.”

There is a familiar refrain around the Patriots, filtered from the coach, Bill Belichick, all the way down to the practice squad players. You may have heard it once or twice . . . 

”Ignore the noise.” 

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For the better part of the last six months, that has been challenging for Butler. A prideful man, he was stung not only by the Pats' unwillingness to pay him what he thinks he’s worth but also by the blindsiding, first-day free-agent payout to former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore. That’s been well-documented by this writer dating back to those wildly emotional days, something Butler -- in quiet moments -- reaffirmed that to me initially and later to both the media throng and the Sunday Night Football crew prior to Atlanta game last weekend. That pain will never go away, but Butler is doing his best to dull it.

“You try not to think about,” he said. “You try . . . The only thing I can do is play the best I can and try to pick it up another notch, which I am, which I will do. Every single one of us [will].”

Butler’s inconsistency has been uncommon. In each of his previous two seasons, you could almost guarantee what kind of performance you were going to get from the ultra-competitive cornerback. This year? Not so much.

Has Butler been distracted? Has the uncertainty of his future weighed on him? 

“No, not really,” he insisted. “I’m the type of guy that lives a day at a time -- or tries. We all try. That’s what we should do. I just try to live one day at a time. You never know what could happen at any time.”

Professionally, that was hammered home to Butler when Gilmore got $31 million guaranteed from Belichick and the Pats. There’s no question that’s not an easy pill to swallow and created an odd dynamic for Butler to navigate around and through.

I asked him about this relationship with Gilmore and what it’s been like.

“Steph is a good, good guy,” he stated. “We help each other. Everything is kind of new for him, but no excuses. I enjoy playing with him. He loves playing the game just like I do. Everybody loves him, including myself . . . "

Butler steered the conversation back to football because he’d would rather the attention be focused on his play. That’s why -- on occasion -- he’s passed on making himself available to reporters until game day, although as a veteran of this market he says knowingly “all of this comes with the territory. You just gotta take it as it comes and keep rolling.”

Finding that roll has been difficult. There was the snaps reduction in New Orleans and communication issues that were evident as recently as two Sundays ago against the Jets. But Butler made two huge plays in that win over New York and then backed it up with his best performance of the season in the Super Bowl rematch with the Falcons. It wasn’t just the competitive coverage versus significantly bigger receivers Julio Jones and Mohamad Sanu, but also his fearlessness playing run force, a trademark of Butler’s during his time here. The 27-year-old was excited not only about his play, but the play of the entire group.

“You just feel it as a group,” he said. “You feel it during the week. You feel like everyone is coming together, everyone is gelling together. It wasn’t going to happen in the first game or second game. Sometimes it does -- but for the most part, it takes time to build one unit, together. We’re building and we’e coming along well.”

He added, “We’re speaking the right language. We want to stay on the one side . . . the good side.”

But lest you get too far ahead of yourself, Butler cautioned that one game is just that one game. That consistency from game to game -- and play to play -- is critical in this defense becoming the defense it believes it can be.

“We just have to all get on the same page and find a rhythm," he said. "You can’t just have one game that’s a really great game or one player have a good game, or several players even. We all have to do that. That will bring a lot of momentum toward the team.”

A team that Butler may not belong to once the season comes to an end. But right now it seems to have his full attention.

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

0:55 - Patriots playing great as they stream roll the Raiders but Koppen explains that Belichick will knock them down as he strives for perfection. Also talk about how it takes a couple months into the season for the coaches and players to learn each other again.

5:40 - Stephon Gilmore playing excellent lined up against Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Butler bounces back but gives up the only score to Amari Cooper. Koppen suggest Butler’s contract situation might be affecting his play. 

7:50 - All in on the Patriots defense yet? Giardi and Koppen discuss the defensive play and the upcoming offenses the Patriots will be facing.

10:30 - Dan Koppen talks about job security in the NFL and if he ever worried about somebody else taking his job, and the cutthroat nature of the Patriots. 

13:50 - Tom Brady picking apart the Raiders and Jack Del Rio’s defenses throughout his career. 

17:45 - A debate about Patriots backup quarterbacks and if Matt Cassel was actually a good NFL QB. 

21:20 - A few game notes: Rex Burkhead’s fumble vs. the Raiders, LaAdrian Waddle filling in for Marcus Cannon. 

Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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