Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- Malcolm Butler is among the most competitive people in the Patriots locker room so what he said on Tuesday as it related to his play in recent preseason games came as no surprise. 

"Below my status,” Butler said. “I’m better than that, and I will be better than that. No need to panic. That’s how I feel about it.”

It's been a bit of an odd build-up to the 2017 season for Butler. He spent a chunk of the offseason hearing his name involved in rumors and hearing a pitch from the Saints as a restricted free agent. He returned to New England and played well early on in camp. He was arguably Bill Belichick's best player on either side of the ball for a stretch earlier this summer.  

Then things got a little sideways for Butler in West Virginia. He gave up a long touchdown in one of the joint practices with the Texans when he couldn't quite get his feet under him to contest the football at its highest point. 

A few days later in Houston, he allowed a 37-yard pass to Bruce Ellington and a touchdown to Jaelen Strong. The following week in Detroit, he allowed a 23-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Marvin Jones. 

In total this preseason, Butler has been targeted six times, according to Pro Football Focus. Opponents have caught all six passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns, meaning he's allowed opposing quarterbacks a perfect 158.3 rating when he's been targeted. 

 

Before we make any declarations regarding Butler's play, let's take a look at the three preseason plays mentioned above to see what we can find. 

On the bomb to Ellington, Butler's drop -- where he opens up his hips to the middle of the field and keys in on quarterback Tom Savage -- indicated that he and the Patriots were in zone. 

Butler stayed with Ellington stride for stride while locked on Savage, but when the ball was falling to its target, Butler seemed to let it go, almost as if he assumed the football was floating out of bounds. It wasn't. Ellington made an acrobatic, if uncontested, catch. 

On the touchdown to Strong, Butler was beaten by some good footwork. The 6-foot-2 Strong sold a route that looked like it was taking him to the back-corner of the end zone, where he might be able to post up on the smaller Butler for a back-shoulder type of throw. Once Butler turned his hips toward the sideline, Strong had him. 

Strong quickly made his move back to the inside, almost causing Butler to fall as he changed direction. With the step that he needed, Strong headed to the middle portion of the back end line where he was open for the score. (There appeared to be some miscommunication between safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon on the play, which may have sapped Butler of some of his help.)

In Detroit, it looked like Butler was expecting another back-shoulder throw against a taller receiver. As Jones ran down the right sideline, Jones looked over his shoulder toward Stafford from about 10 yards away. Butler reacted and turned his head over his inside shoulder, slowing himself down and giving Jones a step. 

 

Perhaps Butler didn't think the Lions would take a shot at the end zone on first-and-10 from the 23-yard line with almost a minute-and-a-half remaining in the second quarter. Perhaps he thought Stafford would uncork it near the chains for a first down. Either the way, the result was not what Butler was looking for. 

So what do we make of these lapses?

While they're certainly worth analyzing, they don't indicate that Butler has lost a step physically, and it's hard to come to the conclusion that he's developed some bad habit over the course of camp. They ended up looking like 1) a lapse in spacial-awareness, 2) a bad read on a good route, and 3) a guess gone wrong. 

For Butler, three plays does not a summer make. He was excellent in joint practices against the Jaguars, and he had some highly-competitive battles against his own teammates -- particularly with Julian Edelman -- that he seemed to win more often than not earlier in camp. 

Even against the Lions last week, Butler helped cause two turnovers by punching the football out of Golden Tate's hands and later deflecting a Stafford pass that was picked by Eric Rowe. 

Butler may expect more from himself than what he's shown of late, but he was right: No need to panic. He remains a Pro Bowl-level corner, and as long as he's on the roster the Patriots -- with Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones rounding out the team's top four at the position -- will feature one of the most talented and versatile groups of cover men they've ever had under Bill Belichick.