NEW ORLEANS -- After giving up 42 points in the season opener, Bill Belichick gave the Patriots multiple days off. When they returned, they were given a simplified approach on defense designed to ease the mental burden on the players and allow them to play more free.
By and large, that formula worked Sunday in their 36-20 victory over the Saints.
“We just played fast and physical,” said safety Duron Harmon. “That was one of the main things: simplifying the game plan a little bit. We were getting lined up and playing. Just doing that got our confidence going early.”
PATRIOTS 36, SAINTS 20
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Part of that simplification involved the defensive backs. Instead of having their cornerbacks flip sides or play almost strictly matchup football, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia limited some of that movement, keeping Stephon Gilmore largely on one side and -- prior to his injury -- Eric Rowe on the other. Yes, Eric Rowe, who earned the start instead of Malcolm Butler.
“It really just helps if I’m nickel role -- whoever’s out there is out there -- I can just make my call and that’s the play we’re running instead of if we’re in a match mode and Malcolm could be inside (or outside). With [Drew] Brees, they go fast on offense. We just simplified the game plan so we could play faster.”
Butler wasn’t “benched.” He played quite a bit prior to Rowe’s departure and at times played very well, including separating the football from second-year wideout Michael Thomas on a deep crossing route. But he was also victimized on the Brandon Coleman touchdown that brought the Saints within 10 points in the second quarter, 20-10.
Butler was not seen by this reporter following the game. This, after a week in which he was also not seen kicking around in the locker room during media availability. A source close to Butler told me not to read into it, “No distractions. And what is left to say? He's a Patriot right now.” That last part is an obvious reference the an odd offseason that saw then then-restricted free agent Butler visit the Saints and have both sides talk about a potential deal. A deal did happen between the two teams; it just didn’t involve Butler. Now, in Week 2, Butler doesn’t start? Rowe said he didn’t notice any issues with Butler leading up to the game.
“No, I didn’t feel through the week, or Malcolm didn’t feel that there was anything uncomfortable-wise,” he said. “I remember [switching roles] last year with Logan Ryan. It really doesn’t make a difference.”
That remains to be seen, but Butler played with energy and his usual passion, indicative of him being “the same guy” that he’s always been, according to teammates. And clearly, though Brees ended up getting his yards -- he always does -- his team only scored two touchdowns and converted just 33 percent of its third-down conversions (4-of-12). That’s another example of improved play from Week 1 to Week 2, and the efforts made to clean up some communication issues that plagued the Pats in that loss to the Chiefs.
“Oh yeah, definitely a lot smoother, a lot better than last week, but like you said, it’s not where we want it to be,” noted Harmon. “It’s the second game. We know we’re going to have some mistakes out there on the field that we can learn from. i’d rather learn from them this way than the last week.”
“We pretty much know on the sideline if we get a certain situation how we’re going to play it, so that’s not really the issue,” said Gilmore. “We just gotta keep getting comfortable with each other, know where our help is and where each other is and make plays.”