Malcolm Butler

Are issues in Patriots secondary popping up again?

Are issues in Patriots secondary popping up again?

FOXBORO -- Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

TC: I thought the Steelers and Todd Haley did an excellent job of game-planning and stressing the Patriots secondary. Jerod Mayo explained on Quick Slants and our Quick Slants pod how the Steelers were able to get Jesse James so open on the goal line for the TD that wasn’t. It had to do with understanding what the Patriots defensive rules were, based on formation, then exploiting it. To sum it up, the Steelers put Darrius Heyward-Bey in the backfield knowing Malcolm Butler had been sticking with him. Then they ran DHB to the right where there were already had three receivers covered by three Patriots. Pittsburgh knew Butler would have to pass off DHB during the play and stay home in the middle but he didn’t. Hence, James was open. So there are fails that come as a result of the other team scheming. There are also fails -- like 5-foot-6 Jakeem Grant of the Dolphins -- going up and beating Butler on a great catch-and-throw. Hard as it is to acknowledge, a lot of that play was Miami’s guys beating the Patriots guys. Same -- to a degree -- with Juju Smith-Schuster’s 69-yard catch-and-run. Good play design, but should have been a 20-yard gain if better angles were taken by Devin McCourty and Butler. When it comes to Gilmore, though, he doesn’t seem to play with the urgency and physicality that players who come up with the Patriots seem to. The intensity of Butler, Jonathan Jones -- or even former Patriot Logan Ryan -- compared to Gilmore both in the running game and finishing contested catches doesn’t look the same. When Butler gets beat, he’s fighting. These plays bugged me . . . 

But I don’t think the level of confusion and disarray is anything like what we were seeing at the start of the year.

TC: Worst in the AFC? Has to be Pittsburgh. They can put up numbers. Their sheer offensive talent is better than the Patriots. It’s better than everyone’s, really, but the mismatches they can get at the second level when they get into the Patriots linebacker crew or safety depth playing in the box is daunting. After that, the Chiefs would be a bother. The mobility of Alex Smith, their prior success this year, the fact they’ve played the Patriots as often as they have and have a grasp on what the Patriots want to do on both sides of the ball is a concern. Blake Bortles isn’t winning a playoff game in Foxboro. So despite the Jags very good year defensively, one cannot get worked up about that being a threat.

TC: I haven’t delved too deeply into each guy yet. What attributes does he HAVE to have beyond being of standard height, weight and arm strength? Outstanding leader. Really smart. Works. Works. Works. After that, it’s accuracy, big-game performances against very good competition and the ability to take tough coaching where every completion and correct read isn’t cause to break out the sheet cake and have an office party.

TC: Absolutely. And if the Jets are going to be getting Christian Hackenberg reps -- and he took some this week -- that’s an excellent invitation for the Patriots to take advantage of the Jets turning this into an audition Sunday. Which they should. But don’t give the Jets the inkling that this can be a season-saving, face-saving game. It will be minus-31 or so and it’s New Year’s Eve. Get the Jets on their jet with no drama.
 

TC: Good question Dave. Twenty-nine touches for Dion Lewis -- despite his great production last week -- was not ideal. Bolden definitely should expect to get some run in this one -- again -- after the Patriots have gotten separation. The 2015 mistake of trying to prove a point and establish a running game in Miami that led to a costly loss should still be fresh enough that the Patriots make sure this thing is locked down before going to the reserves.

MG: It was very nice to meet you a handful of weeks back. I’m still mad you stole my sign! There are a lot of folks who seem to be fearing the Baltimore Ravens, but I’ve got no faith or love for Jump Ball Joe Flacco so despite their history of playing the Pats tough, I’m not buying. The Chiefs would be interesting because they throttled you on opening night (this have some confidence) and seem to have rediscovered their game of late. With guys like Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt, they have players who can take it to the house in one play. We know the Steelers and what they’re all about. Supreme talent on the offensive side of the ball but that scheme defensively still can’t solve Brady and Gronk. Lastly, the Jags. I know, I know, Blake Bortles is their quarterback and he’s proven nothing, But that defense is beastly. Reminds me of the Houston Texans last year and they gave the Pats all they could handle but eventually were undone by an incompetent quarterback. I think we have a chance to see that all over again. As for the NFC, sign me up for the New Orleans Saints. They’re built to travel, they have an elite QB and two playmaking running backs and a defense that isn’t even remotely what we saw in week 2. Pats vs Saints. It’s happening.

MG: Will, Happy New Year. If that were to happen, the only people who will be happier will be members of the Brady and Garoppolo families. San Fran has a ways to go, and we’ll have to see how Garoppolo operates with heightened pressure and the entire franchise on his back, but there isn’t a player/staffer/coach/front office guy I’ve talked to that doesn’t think he won’t thrive. Can you imagine the buildup to that game? Brady would be 41. My goodness. Sign me up!

MG: Pete, right back at you my friend. It’s been an uneven year for Malcolm. I think he’s a better player than this but the contract and the offseason and Gilmore’s presence has screwed him up some. There have been plenty of Malcolm of old moments, but I don’t think he’s earned himself as much money as he thought. Of course, if he turns it on for the playoffs, that will all be forgotten and someone will knock his socks off. The cap is going up. Someone will invest in him, and I’m fairly certain it won’t be the Pats.

PP: Cheech! The sheer number of jobs rumored to be available, to me, makes it seem pretty likely that at least one Patriots coordinator is gone after the season. A lot will depend on which jobs actually open up, and which jobs would be paired with like-minded front offices, but the more likely option of the two would seem to be McDaniels. If Indianapolis comes calling and McDaniels feels good about Andrew Luck's arm and GM Chris Ballard, that could be a tough gig to pass on. Detroit, where former Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn is in the front office, could be another attractive landing spot. If the Titans job opens up, where another former Patriots front-office man Jon Robinson resides, that could be intriguing. Plus, if there's a team that would be willing to take on Nick Caserio as general manager (or former Bill Belichick pupils Scott Pioli or Louis Riddick) then the attractive openings could be fairly widespread. Feels like the timing makes sense for McDaniels. Same goes for Patricia, who may not have to be as picky since he's still looking at his first foray into being a head coach. I'd expect at least one to go, and it wouldn't shock me if both did.

PP: Good question, K. We've taken a deep dive into Rob Gronkowski's incentive-laden contract for 2017 on multiple occasions. He can earn an additional $2.5 million with 11 catches or 116 receiving yards (or six touchdowns, which seems . . . unlikely). He can also get there if he's named First Team All-Pro. But he's not the only one with reported incentives that will be impacted by what happens on New Year's Eve. Our buddy Miguel Benzan did a great job laying out all the incentives up for grabs here for Boston Sports Journal. Lawrence Guy can earn $500,000 if he ends up playing 55 percent of the defensive snaps for the season. He's currently at 55.4 percent, per Pro Football Focus. Matthew Slater would make $50,000 if the Patriots hit 13 wins for the season. A win would earn Patrick Chung $300,000. He reportedly needs 13 wins and 80 percent playing time to hit his incentive, and he's already sitting at 88.3 percent of the snaps. If he ends with 85 percent playing time, he'll make a cool $500,000. James Develin could be in line for a pay day as well. He'll need to play enough to push him to the 30 percent playing-time threshold, and he's sitting at 29.8 percent at the moment.

PP: First, it's important to ask her if she's doing OK. If she says she's "fine," you're good. Continue about your day as if everything is on the up-and-up because she said it was and you have a relationship rooted in honesty. Really not that hard.

PP: Occasionally electric.

PP: I give you Bill Belichick, last week: "I don’t believe . . . in living in the past. So, we can go back and look at a million things that have happened in every game. That’s not really important."

PP: They're still well above average in terms of points, Mr. Q, checking in at seventh in the NFL with 19.3 allowed per game. They're also still well below average in terms of yards, checking in at 29th with 373.9 allowed per game. If it's the yards you're talking about -- or DVOA (Patriots are 22nd) -- Kyle Van Noy and James Harrison probably won't be enough to bring them back to the middle of the pack. But they should certainly make the Patriots better. Depth in the front-seven, particularly on the edge, has been an issue for months. And against potential playoff opponents like Pittsburgh or Kansas City -- which can run the ball effectively to the outside -- any help there would be welcomed.

Injury report: Branch out, 10 Patriots questionable

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Injury report: Branch out, 10 Patriots questionable

The Patriots final injury report before their showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday includes 10 players listed as questionable and defensive lineman Alan Branch ruled out.

Branch, who hurt his knee in the Monday night loss to the Dolphins, missed three days of practice this week. Among the questionable are linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who didn't play against Miami. Tom Brady (Achilles), Brandon Cooks (hand) and Malcolm Butler (ankle) have been removed from the injury report. 

Cornerback Joe Haden (fibula) and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (hamstring) among the Steelers listed as questionable. The full injury report:

Butler's exit signs continue to shine bright

Butler's exit signs continue to shine bright

FOXBORO -- Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

Eddie!!! I’m putting the chances of his return at single digits and that was before this nonsense. His explanation seemed implausible to me. You could accidentally hit the retweet button but then you have to say yes to retweeting it. I don’t know. That’s never happened to me before and I tweet entirely too much. Liking something would have made more sense. Anyway, I think he’s been a pain in the butt and I think his play has suffered this year as he eyeballs free agency and a new contract.

Miguel checking in with a tough one off the bat. Let's eliminate specialists -- Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona -- from the equation. I think Gostkowski would be the clear winner if he was in the mix. He's impacted a lot of games in a positive way for them with his field goals and kick placement. If we go outside of that trio, the question gets tougher. Matthew Slater has been unavailable for much of the season. Nate Ebner is out. And the list of solid week-to-week contributors is long. I'm going to go with Jonathan Jones, who's been out there consistently and is one of their top players when it comes to covering kicks. The Patriots are among the best in the league when it comes to opposing starting field position, and it's because of players like Jones. Johnson Bademosi, Brandon King and Brandon Bolden all deserve honorable mention, but Jones is my choice. If Patriots opponents were more willing to allow the Patriots to return kicks, then Dion Lewis would be in the running as well. But he's taking a knee more often than not.

Rich, the Patriots ask their edge players to do a hell of a lot more than just set the edge. It’s why Rob Ninkovich was an ironman on that defense for a long time, why they drafted a player like Chandler Jones in the first round, and why they were quite confident in letting Dont’a Hightower expand his role in that regard before the injuries struck. The Pats also drafted Derek Rivers but lost him to a knee injury in the summer and made that ill-fated trade for Kony Ealy. One of the reasons Ealy didn’t work here was because he was unable/unwilling to handle some of those duties, which include dropping into coverage.

Let's set it at 6.5! Any more than two catches a game over the next three, I think, would be encouraging -- or it would mean someone's been injured. There's a lot to absorb for Britt, obviously, and he's competing with a pretty deep group of pass-catchers for looks. When Michael Floyd was here at the end of last season, he caught four passes in two games, and there were no Rob Gronkowski or Brandin Cooks to absorb targets. I'm taking the under.

The Malcolm Mitchell situation is a murky one. He's been in the building. He's been rehabbing. But as far as I understand it, even he's not entirely sure if there's a plan in place to bring him back this season. I think the Britt signing further muddies the picture.

He's nice depth if the Patriots are hoping to give Mitchell the full year off to heal and be an impact player for the foreseeable future.

Vincent Valentine is in a situation where he's also doing everything that's asked of him. He was encouraged by his progress midseason, and he stuck in Foxboro through the bye week to continue to stay on his rehab plan. What's happening now with Alan Branch -- who missed practice all week because of an injured knee and almost certainly won't be available Sunday -- could impact how the Patriots view a potential return for the second-year defensive tackle. Their defense has struggled against the run. They're allowing an average of 5.0 yards per carry, worst in the league. If Branch is going to miss some time moving forward, maybe that forces the Patriots to break glass on Valentine.

My answer might've been different a month or two ago. Back then, the concerns about Andrew Luck's shoulder weren't as alarming as they are now. Back then, Giants ownership hadn't yet made a big ugly mess of its quarterback situation. I still think there are going to be enough enticing opportunities out there for McDaniels to seriously consider taking one. His choice could be the Giants, who have talent in place and the perfect bridge quarterback ready to go. It could be the Bears, if he believes in Mitchell Trubisky. It could be the Browns, if McDaniels wants to go back to the Cleveland area, and if he can stomach the way ownership has handled things in recent years, and if he likes the idea of working with new general manager John Dorsey.

I don't think the opportunities are as shiny as they were earlier this season, but they are plentiful, and now may be as good a time as any for McDaniels to make his second run as a head coach.

Well, I’d say any quarterback who loses his top two options won’t be as good, right? Also, let’s give some credit to Miami. Defensive coordinator Matt Burke came up with a good plan and there were times where Brady was clearly unsure about what he was seeing. Combine that with receivers that had a hard time separating from press man coverage and you had the perfect storm Monday night. It’ll look a lot better this weekend in Pittsburgh. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the Pats won’t go 0-for-11 on third downs.

I do think Derek Rivers will make an impact. First of all, if his knee can get right, and indications I've gotten are that rehab has gone well, he's athletic enough to make plays on the edge. Physically, his skill set should translate. We were starting to see flashes of that in training camp before he was injured. Second of all, it looks like he's going to have all kinds of opportunity. The picture on the edge could change depending on what the Patriots do in the draft and free agency, obviously, but after Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Kyle Van Noy, there aren't many edge defenders who look like locks for roles in 2018.

Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy have been very good of late, but they may be asked to play more if Branch can't go. How that impacts their legs late will be worth watching. Otherwise, the tackling at the second level needs to improve -- and it should. It's not often you see someone like Patrick Chung whiff in the hole to give up a big gain, which is what happened in Miami on one of Kenyan Drake's longest runs of the night. I don't think we'll see much in the way of drastic scheme change, especially since you can't sell out against the run and leave yourself vulnerable to the pass against the Steelers. If they clean up some technique, they'll improve. And remember, the Steelers haven't been very efficient running the football this year. Le'Veon Bell averages 3.9 yards per carry. That helps.

Jordan, you gotta figure this will be an area to address in the offseason, even with Rivers and Hightower coming back from their respective injuries. Also, Alan Branch hasn’t been the same player this year and Vincent Valentine has been on IR all season. I’d say depending on what happens at left tackle (Nate Solder’s in the last year of a two-year deal). this might be where a fair amount of resources are devoted.

The Patriots very rarely double with two corners unless it's a slot player and an outside guy. They also have been prone to using their second-best corner and a safety on an opposing team's No. 1. If they use Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler on Antonio Brown, they'd be using their top two outside corners. I don't see it. What I could see is Butler underneath with a safety over the top. And in the red zone? I wouldn't be shocked to see Butler with a linebacker or a slot player bracketing Brown. Butler hasn't been all that great when it comes to excelling leverage-wise when he has help this year -- there's an art to the double team -- so I also wouldn't be surprised if Jonathan Jones saw some work as the underneath player on Brown. I'd deploy Gilmore on JuJu Smith-Schuster (who has become Pittsburgh's No. 2) and Eric Rowe on Martavis Bryant.

Sebastian, what do you mean? African or European swallow? I’ll wait for your answer . . . 

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