Stephon Gilmore

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.

Gilmore's situation with Patriots 'getting better all the time'

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Gilmore's situation with Patriots 'getting better all the time'

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Being the new guy isn’t easy, especially when you consider the circumstances Stephon Gilmore found himself in after signing with the Patriots this offseason. 

For starters, there’s the whole Malcolm Butler dynamic. It was a rare mistake by Bill Belichick, not predicting an unforeseen tension, and Gilmore has had to try and navigate through a difficult situation that only recently seems to have calmed down.

Then there’s the other aspect of the cornerback’s insertion into the lineup and locker room. Gilmore joined a group that has been together for a long time, at least in NFL terms. So while the holdovers all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, never mind personalities, Gilmore had to adjust to that part of the switch as well.

“It’s been about learning one another,” Gilmore told me. “It’s been a process. Sometimes the communication suffered but I was never worried about it from a physical standpoint. It was mental, not physical.”

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As a group, the Patriots felt like Butler deserved to get paid so it came as a bit of a shock that the money was spent on an outsider and not a home-grown product. But Gilmore has worked to smooth over any friction or doubt by doing his best to seamlessly fit in, earning respect from his teammates for his handling of the situation and for his easygoing, soft-spoken nature.

“The good thing is Steph makes it easy for us all to be close,” said Duron Harmon. “He’s a good guy. He’s quiet, but he has a great heart, always around, always talking, whether it’s not even about football, talking about his family, asking how my family is doing, how his family is doing. So I think he’s fit in well. I think we’re all close. We’re still learning each other and I think eventually this week (in Colorado Springs) will help us.”

Gilmore agrees with Harmon’s assessment of the time spent together in Colorado. There's no family here. It’s just football and each other.

“I like it. I like it being with the guys every day, staying in the same hotel, getting to know each other,” said Gilmore. “It’s good.”

Not sure how this would have looked had it come on the heels of Gilmore’s rocky first month in uniform. During that stretch, a fair amount of the chunk plays allowed by the defense came with Gilmore in the area and after several members of the secondary called the group’s play embarrassing following the 33-30 loss to Carolina. The Harmon quote “it can’t get no more simpler than it is” was read in some circles as being directed at the newcomer. Imagine the tension in the meeting rooms in the days that followed.

But Gilmore answered with a strong performance the following Thursday night in Tampa and then -- after dealing with a concussion that sidelined him for three games -- had another solid outing in Denver. That showed a little something…

“He’s competitive,” said Pat Chung. “He’s a good player. He’s back out there and he’s better. He wasn’t bad to begin with there’s certainly some things you have to get used to on a new team and he got used to them. Hopefully he keeps getting better.”

“Steph is a tough guy, a tough player,” said Devin McCourty. “We knew he’d be fine.”

“He’s a fighter,” said Harmon. “He’s not going to go into the tank. He’s not going to let anybody dictate how he feels, how he approaches going into a game. He just continues to work, continues to keep grinding, and all you can do is respect that because a lot people would go into the tank but you can see he’s mentally tough to go out there and fix what he needs to fix and start playing productive.”

Gilmore wasn’t perfect against the Broncos. He allowed four catches on seven targets to his man, Demaryius Thomas, but with strong hands and an occasional flash of physicality, he kept Brock Osweiler’s favorite wide receiver relatively quiet, save for a third-quarter touchdown. After the play, it appeared Harmon got a little heated with Gilmore, who told us following the game he thought he had help underneath.

Maybe the players wouldn’t have joked about that earlier in the year, but Harmon had no problem laughing when I asked if the discussion was just about getting Gilmore to speak up and use his outside voice.

“Nah man, nah,” Harmon laughed. “It was just us talking about the play and making sure we’re on the same page,” adding, “I’ve never heard Steph raise his voice. Not sure he has one. It’s all good. We got enough people that yell in this building. We don’t need any more.”

“It’s just part of the process,” said Gilmore “We’ll get there. It’s getting better all the time.”

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Patriots awed by Air Force stories of survival training

Patriots awed by Air Force stories of survival training

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. - Do you think of yourself as tough? As self-sufficient? Well has Air Force Academy football coach Troy Calhoun got a story for you. 

Calhoun spoke to the Patriots earlier this week as the team trains at high altitude in Colorado Springs preparing for Sunday’s game in Mexico City against the Raiders. Calhoun's players have to check a lot more boxes than running a good 40-yard dash and completing a certain number of reps on the bench press.

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“He told us a story about them going into the mountains and living for like two or three weeks,” said a wide-eyed Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

As part of their curriculum, students at the Air Force Academy must take survival training. So, not only do they get dropped in the middle of nowhere with no shelter but also have to hunt for their own meals. Ah fellas, do you think you could handle that?

“This is obviously not for me,” said Duron Harmon before laughter overtook him. 

“I don’t know if it works for me either,” added James White, shaking his head.

Gilmore continued to be amazed at what he heard, even days later, “They got to kill stuff and eat it. I don’t know if I could that. I don’t know where I’d sleep. I don’t know what I’d kill. That’s a hard situation.”

Only Rob Gronkowski appeared ready to accept the challenge. Do you think you could live in the mountains and kill animals to survive?
 
“If I had to, I would have to.”
 
Ok, but what animals would you hunt?
 
“I like animals, so I don't know.”

I’m not sure that bears want to be scratched behind the ear, Gronk. Call me crazy. Anyway...

Calhoun spoke to the team at the behest of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. We know about Belichick’s love for the service academies and one of the points behind Calhoun's speech was to give his players a much greater understanding of just how difficult life can be for this select group of student-athletes.

“It was a super-strong message,” acknowledged Gronkowski. “Knowing what they go through, it just shows how strong they are and shows what type of person it takes to be able to make it here in the Air Force Academy, which takes a lot – a lot of dedication for sure.

“There’s only a certain type of guys that they recruit and you have to be a certain type of person to do what they do, “ said Gilmore. “You’ve got to respect them for what they do.”

Said Harmon: “All those guys go out there and play football but we don’t see their basic training they have to do when they first come in, the survival training and still going to all these classes, still playing football. You just have a real respect for them because those are the guys that are going to be protecting us, keeping the country safe.”

That resonated among the players, who understand while what they do is important to a lot of people, and they can impact the happiness of an entire region, it’s just a game, not life and death like the men and women who go to the Academy and know they could find themselves at war one day.

“It makes you appreciate what you have for sure,” said Gronkowski, while Gilmore added, “anytime I think I’m going through something, I need to appreciate it looking at their situation and not complaining, just doing what needs to be done.”

When Belichick reads that, he’ll smile. That’s part of what the coach always wants from his players and coaches - just do what needs to be done. Perhaps hearing it from someone else - Coach Calhoun - will keep the message fresh as the Patriots press on through the second half the season and what they hope will be a long postseason run as well. 

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