Duron Harmon

On biggest stage, defense failed to do its job

On biggest stage, defense failed to do its job

MINNEAPOLIS -- Tom Brady capped the Patriots’ third straight 75-yard march with a beautiful touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski. That put the Eagles behind the eight-ball for the first time in the Super Bowl midway through the fourth quarter. It was all happening, again. But at Pats defense, so adept at coming up with a play when they absolutely had to basically since early October just couldn’t get off the field, continuing a theme that plagued them all evening.

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First, it was a drive-extending completion from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz on third-and-six. Later, near midfield, the Pats swarmed Torrey Smith on third-and-one a rare stop. But the Eagles wisely went for it on fourth down -- did you see what Tom Brady had done to that point? -- and it was the Foles-to-Ertz combo platter that worked again. 

Finally, and fittingly, it was that now-renowned duo striking again, this time on third-and-seven from the Pats’ 11. Ertz split wide, drove hard upfield before breaking off a slant. Devin McCourty had him one-on-one but slipped as he tried to break on the route. Ertz hauled in the pass, stretched for the end zone and broke the plane before the ball popped free. The play would be reviewed but the result would stand. Touchdown, Eagles. 

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That capped an impressive run of Philly’s offense making plays when they had to. The Eagles went 10-for-16 on third downs and 2-for-2 on 4th down, including that gutsy, beautiful touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton to Foles. 

“We didn’t get off the field on third down,” said safety Duron Harmon. “That’s what it came down to. third down. What were they,” he asked reporters. When he was told the stats, all he could muster was “that’s the game right there.”

“You need to make those plays and we just didn’t make them,” said Devin McCourty.

Bill Belichick didn’t offer much insight in his postgame comments, but did note the Eagles “had a good design and kept us off-balance.” 

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia concurred. 

“They’re an outstanding third-down and red-area team. We knew that going in. They executed better than we did in those situations. They made some really big plays in those that you knew were going to come up in the game. Combined, we weren’t really good enough on third down.”

Still, even down by 10 at halftime, you fully expected that Patricia would be able to make some adjustments to slow down the Eagles. After all, he had done that for the better part of the season in what was clearly his best work as the DC. But even an extra-long break (the Super Bowl halftime lasted 30 minutes), the Pats weren’t able to deliver the necessary good when pressed.

“I thought we were going to able to get a stop,” said Harmon. “We came close a bunch of times…”

“It was just execution,” said a red-eyed Trey Flowers, who still hadn’t removed half his gear some 25 minutes after the game. “They had high execution. We had a lack of execution. It is what it is.”

It probably would have been beneficial for the Pats to have had Malcolm Butler play but, according to Bill Belichick, the veteran cornerback and the team leader in defensive snaps this year wasn’t as good a fit as Eric Rowe on this night.

“We put the best players out there and the gameplan out there because we thought it’d be the best to win,” he said, adding that it wasn’t a disciplinary decision when asked.

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“He’s a great player, you know?” Stephon Gilmore said of Butler. “I want everybody to play. He could have helped us, maybe. I don’t know. That’s how the game goes sometimes.”

He certainly could haven helped on an 18-yard completion to Nelson Agholor early in the third quarter. Instead, the Pats turned to Johnson Bademosi as their third corner. He was completely lost on the play. That conversion helped revive the Eagles drive, a drive that eventually ended with that 23-yard Corey Clement touchdown catch over Marquis Flowers. 

“They executed at a high level,” said Patricia. “There really wasn’t a lot of miscues by them at all and obviously we didn’t execute well enough. It starts with me.”

After his press conference, Patricia walked through that Pats locker room for the last time, embracing several players, including defensive tackle Malcom Brown. They both had tears in their eyes. They both knew that what they did as a defense just wasn’t enough and there’s no way to rewrite. The numbers were right there for everyone to see.

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Malcolm Butler says Patriots 'gave up' on him

Malcolm Butler says Patriots 'gave up' on him

MINNEAPOLIS -- Malcolm Butler stood with his back to reporters, trying to clasp his thick gold chain. He went at it once. No luck. Twice. Not happening. After a third try, he flung it into his backpack while muttering something under his breath. 

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Butler then turned sharply, not to face about a dozen media members waiting at his locker, but to spin out of sight and out into the night. He saluted those waiting on him and hustled for the exit. 

Before he got to the buses, Butler was stopped and asked if he was given a reason why his team -- a team that gave up 41 points in the Super Bowl -- had opted to bench him.

“No,” he told NBC Sports Boston, with an edge in his voice. He then shook his head and off he went.

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He later realized he'd left his cellphone in the locker room, returned, and was stopped by a member of the Patriots media-relations staff. Asked if he'd take a few questions from reporters, he opted not to, threw his hands in the air and left the locker room again. 

It was a stunning end to a frustrating year. After leading the team in defensive snaps this season, including playoffs, he did not see one in his team's 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. 

All the while, his replacements, Eric Rowe and Johnson Bademosi, struggled in coverage at times and missed some critical third-down tackles. Butler, a sure tackler and one of the most competitive players on the field whether he was playing well or not, could have helped. 

Bill Belichick deemed otherwise, saying repeatedly after the game that he did what was best for the team, what gave them the best chance to win.

Butler’s teammates, already in shock about the loss, had precious few answers on Butler’s status. Duron Harmon told us to "ask coach," and safety Jordan Richards stammered for a second, shrugged and eventually said he didn’t want to speak on that.

"You gotta ask the coaches," Stephon Gilmore said. "We rotate a lot in practice. We just go with the coaching staff . . . We know he's a great player, but we gotta listen to the coaches. Whatever they say we gotta do, we gotta do." 

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There were mixed messages from Patriots defensive backs after the game when it came to how much warning had been given to the team as it related to the plan with Butler. Devin McCourty told NBC Sports Boston after the game that players understood what the plan was as it related to Butler's playing time. When asked why that was the plan, McCourty said it wasn't up to the players.

Eric Rowe, meanwhile, said, "that wasn't the plan."

"It wasn't official," Rowe said, "until kickoff... I feel for [Butler]."  

Indications are that Rowe practiced opposite Gilmore this past week, but, because the Patriots tend to rotate players in practice, Rowe may not have been sure he was starting until just before the game.

Multiple players, such as Rowe, seemed taken aback by the decision not to play the Super Bowl XLIX hero. One player told NBC Sports Boston that Butler's benching wasn’t necessarily beneficial for the team Sunday night. 

Belichick said after the game that the decision not to play Butler was not disciplinary in nature. 

"We put the best -- the players out there and the game plan out there that we thought would be the best tonight," Belichick said, "like we always do."

Belichick explained that the decision was strictly football related, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia echoed those sentiments. 

"We just played all the guys we could to try to help us win in whatever packages we had," he said. "Different situations came up, and were just trying to move some things around."

Whatever the reasoning, Butler was emotional following the game. Appearing angry at times, appearing saddened at others. He was boiling when ESPN's Mike Reiss caught up with him.

"They gave up on me. F---. It is what it is," Butler said. "I don't know what it was. I guess I wasn't playing good or they didn't feel comfortable. I don't know. But I could have changed that game."

With Butler out, Rowe was targeted a team-high nine times and allowed six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. Bademosi was targeted once and allowed one catch for 17 yards.

On the night, Nick Foles completed 28 of 43 pass attempts for 373 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

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Harmon on Patriots success: 'Nobody can take this from us, we earned it'

Harmon on Patriots success: 'Nobody can take this from us, we earned it'

BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota -- Barry Sanders. Dick Butkus. Steve Largent. Eric Dickerson. Gale Sayers. John Randall. LaDainian Tomlinson. Dan Dierdorf. Derrick Thomas. Lee Roy Selmon. Earl Campell. Deacon Jones. 

What do all those Hall of Famers have in common?

None ever played on the game’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl. That’s unreal when you think about the greatness of those careers, and in some cases, how long those careers lasted. The number of touchdowns and yards and tackles and sacks and forced fumbles from that group is mind-numbing. But how many of those stats do you think they’d trade just to have gotten one ring? Hell, one crack at one ring? 

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Contrast that with someone like Duron Harmon. He’s about to finish his 5th season with the Patriots. This is his third Super Bowl appearance. His other two years in New England resulted in trips to the AFC Championship game.

“It’s great living,” smiled the affable Harmon. “You see guys who play in this league for 10 plus years who never sniff the playoffs, let alone get to the Super Bowl so I know I’m definitely in a great spot.”

Like everyone on the roster during this stretch, Harmon has benefited from the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady combo platter. One’s the greatest coach of all-time. The other is the greatest quarterback of all-time. And if you won’t give them that (what’s wrong with you?), you’ll at least admit they’re very much in the conversation. 

But here’s where things get a little twisted. While those two outshine even a Super Moon, they’re not the only reason why the Pats are here seemingly every single year. And though Harmon doesn’t want to outright say that, his tone is pretty clear.

“I’m blessed, but at the end of the day we work for this,” he said. “Nobody can take this from us. We earned it.  We put the work in day in and day out, year in and year out. We all do a great job of deciphering from year to year to never let the previous year determine how we play the next year. That has allowed us to continue to always have a goal a mind and never backtrack or think about the past.”

Why is that important? Harmon emphasizes, “because the past really does nothing for you when you’re playing a football game.”

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Spoken like a player who knows what’s what, and one who’s just about ready for kickoff.

“It’s the Super Bowl,” he said. “If you can’t be focused for the Super Bowl, you shouldn’t be playing this game…Everybody is definitely ready. You can tell it.”

There’s plenty of players on the Patriots who know what that feels like. Harmon’s one of the lucky ones. It’s all that he knows. 

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