Patriots

Perry: For a night, Patriots don't care they won ugly

Perry: For a night, Patriots don't care they won ugly

TAMPA BAY -- This wasn't the way it was supposed to go. Back before the season, the Patriots were expected to roll, and roll over everyone, and not stop rolling until they ended up in Minnesota. Then the Chiefs game happened. Then the Panthers game happened. 

And now here they are. Happy to have beaten the Bucs, 19-14, in one of their sloppier victories in recent memory. Thrilled even. 

Inside the visitor's locker room at Raymond James Stadium, there was a sense of relief, a sense of pride for having responded after being backed into a corner.

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"As soon as we came in, we said, 'We gotta build on this,' " Duron Harmon said. "It's still not going to be good enough. We're gonna watch the film. We still made mistakes. We didn't tackle as good as we wanted to in certain situations. 

"We know we gotta get better. We gotta continue to get better. But the season's still young. This is Game 5 of a 16 game season. Trying to tell you, man, we're excited. This is a good win, man."

It was a win, yes. And by definition, it was good. Certainly better than the alternative. But the formula the Patriots used to get there on Thursday night was decidedly unsustainable. 

They committed 12 penalties for 108 yards. They converted just 30 percent of their third-down attempts. They turned it over twice and didn't create any turnovers themselves. They converted on one of three red-zone attempts. They got Tom Brady sacked three times, hit three more, and it appeared as though the man on pace for 5,400 yards passing had difficulty peeling himself off the turf on more than one occasion. 

On Thursday night the Patriots were the cartoon character trying to plug the dike with a finger, then another, then a toe . . . and somehow they held.

For instance, things looked much improved in the secondary, with Stephon Gilmore (this week's Public Enemy No. 1 in New England) matched up with Mike Evans and Malcolm Butler (demoted in Week 2) checking DeSean Jackson. But then a leak sprung at quarterback, as Brady threw a head-scratching interception in the first quarter and lost a fumble on a blitz he never saw coming in the third. 

Then there was the pass rush, which got going late in the second quarter thanks to a sack shared between Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy. But soon thereafter, the Patriots front lost its collective head and hit Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston late on back-to-back plays, taking the Bucs from their own 27 to the New England 38 and into field-goal range in two plays at the end of the half.

Nick Folk missed the kick with time expired, his first of three misses on the night. No leakage. Luckily for them. 

But as ugly as it got, even Bill Belichick was willing to emphasize the positive for one night. 

"Really proud," Belichick said, "of our football team tonight . . . I thought they really responded with a great effort this week in preparation and getting ready for the game . . . 

"I was proud of the way our guys played. I thought defensively, we responded to a good offensive unit . . . Certainly, there was a lot of things in all three areas of the game we could do better and need to do better . . . But good to come down here and win, and I thought our team gave a really great effort on a short week so I'm really proud of them for that."

Proud. It's not the word that would have come to mind to describe Belichick when he watched Brandon Bolden jump offsides in the third quarter -- his second penalty of the night -- before a Buccaneers punt that gave away five yards a free first down. Or when Belichick saw Deatrich Wise commit a hands-to-the-face penalty on third-and-20 in the second quarter that helped extend the drive that led to Tampa's first touchdown. 

But that's what winning does. It allows those moments to be pushed back into the deep recesses of one's short-term memory. For a night, at least. 

With a long break before a matchup with the Jets in Week 6, Belichick understands better than anyone that there's plenty to clean up, starting with the flags that rained down steadily Thursday night. 

"We've had two weeks in a row we've had far too many penalties," Belichick said. "We're obviously not being coached well enough. We have too many mistakes in that area. I have to do a better job and our team has to do a better job. We can't keep giving opportunities to good football teams and continually have to overcome penalties. I gotta do a better job of getting that corrected."

It's just not sustainable. The penalties. The hits to the quarterback. The turnover differential. 

The Patriots know it. Happy as they are right now to get back into the win column, happy as they are to be looking at a weekend off at 3-2 instead of 2-3, they know it. 

Nate Solder was asked a fairly simple question as he was headed out of the locker room late Thursday. How does this feel?

The pregnant pause spoke volumes. 

"I'm excited," he finally let out. "I mean, we made it as tough as we possibly could on ourselves. Not taking advantage of those opportunities when we were in the red zone and all that. 

"But when you put yourself in that sort of situation, you don't give yourself any advantages and still pull off the win, that shows a lot of gritty, tough ball. Hopefully we don't have to win them all like that. It can hurt you."

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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.