Patriots lose Cannon, still find a way to protect Brady vs. Chargers


Patriots lose Cannon, still find a way to protect Brady vs. Chargers

FOXBORO -- For most of last week, it was hard to hear anything about the Chargers without hearing something about their pass rush. 

Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, two of the game's top-10 sack artists, would be in many ways the key to Sunday's outcome. If they could make Tom Brady uncomfortable, they'd be in business. 

As it turned out, the Chargers sacked Brady three times and they hit him five times in all. But only two of those hits came courtesy of Bosa and Ingram -- they had one each -- as the Patriots were able to prevent the pair from ruining the game. 

How'd they do it? 

The short passing game of the Patriots helped. Twenty of Brady's 32 completions on the afternoon went to backs and tight ends. James White caught five passes for 85 yards, while Rex Burkhead caught seven passes for 68 yards. When Brady targeted either, the football was generally out of his hands very quickly, preventing Bosa or Ingram from having the time to pose a threat. 


"They have a lot of good rushers," Bill Belichick said. "I mean, It’s Ingram and Bosa, but it’s a lot more than that. They did a good job with their perimeter pressures. They brought some extra guys and dropped some out, so it was again, not the easiest thing to deal with. 

"Some of that involved the backs. Sometimes the backs and the tight ends were involved in bumping those guys on the way out. To handle that everybody has to do a good job. The quarterback has to get the ball out on time. The line has to pass protect. The receivers have to have spacing in zone and get open in man-to-man."

When they didn't do those things, it meant trouble. Because even when Bosa and Ingram weren't getting to Brady, there were plays when they beat their blockers quickly and would have had hits or sacks had it not been for some fancy footwork by Brady to avoid punishment. 

"What he does, he’s great at, you have to give him credit," said Chargers defensive lineman Brandan Mebane. "They knew that we could pass rush and get to the quarterback, he tried to avoid us and there were times he did a pretty good job at it."

"We don’t have all day because the rush is getting there pretty quick so if nobody is open you can’t block them forever," Belichick said. "If we get open quickly then we don’t have to block them as long. The times that we had it was good overall team execution. Unfortunately, there were times where we didn’t have it and then we didn’t have good plays to go with it."

But for Brady to remain as clean as he did against a pair of rushers as dynamic as any other duo in the league, the Patriots will take it. Especially considering they were down one of their best offensive linemen for the majority of the game. 

Marcus Cannon left the game with an injured ankle during New England's second drive of the second quarter. He entered the game questionable with an ankle issue and has dealt with ankle problems for much of the season. 

When he left, it was up to LaAdrian Waddle to man the right side of the Patriots offensive line. 

"I just went out there and tried to play ball, man," Waddle said. "That's what I'm here for. Play ball. I got an opportunity today and every opportunity I get I'm going to try to make the most of it."

According to Pro Football Focus, Waddle was responsible for five quarterback hurries but he did not give up a hit or a sack in 51 snaps. Because Bosa and Ingram swap sides occasionally, Waddle got both at different points. 

"You can't really double-team both of those guys every play," Waddle said. "Some plays guys are going to have a little heavier load to lift, and they're going to be matched up one-on-one on them. But guys are expected to come through. We just believe in each other and we all go out with that kind of attitude of whoever we play or whoever we're matched up against. We should be able to play the way we should play and we'll be all right."

In the last three games, Brady has been sacked a total of five times. He was sacked 16 times through the first five games of the season.

It wasn't a clean sheet against the Chargers, but facing one of the toughest tandems they'll see all season, it was a strong showing. 

"They definitely have some good rushers and good players and we just came out with attitude," Waddle said. "We just gotta execute and do our job. When we play with good technique and the way we should play, we can handle those guys."


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.