Darius Butler was named the #1 CB at the start of the season and had a pretty good first half against the Cincinnati Bengals to open the season. The second half was excusable as the defense started to play prevent defense. He continued to be the #1 CB in Week 2, but had a rough outing against the New York Jets. Butler was out of place, committed penalties and had a stand-out lackluster game. Then, Butler played just 4 snaps against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3. He had a couple plays against the Dolphins in Week 4. Week 6 came by and Butler didn't step on the field against the Ravens.
The Ravens feature an offense with TJ Houshmandzadeh, Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason at wide receiver and the Patriots thought they would be better off with Butler on the bench.
Week 7 just passed and Butler only saw the field against the Chargers as the game wore on and Pat Chung went to the locker room. Looking at the roster, and the given playing time, we can assume the following depth chart:
#1 CB: Devin McCourty
#2 CB: Kyle Arrington
#3 CB: Darius Butler
#4 CB: Jonathan Wilhite
#1 Slot CB: Jonathan Wilhite
Which means that Butler will only see the field on three receiver sets without a slot receivers (ie: When the Chargers played Buster Davis, Patrick Crayton and Seyi Ajirotutu). On sets with a slot receiver, Butler will stay on the bench since Wilhite takes priority to cover the slot player. Very few teams run offenses with three receiver/no slot sets, which means that Butler won't see the field that often- right?
Let's take a look after the jump.
We know that Butler hasn't been able to supplant Arrington in the depth chart because a groin-injured Arrington still played over Butler against the extremely potent offense of the Chargers. Also, Arrington is a much better run stopper than Butler, most likely due to his special teams experience. However, I believe that there is a chance that Butler will start seeing some playing time the next couple weeks and that he may even be getting back in the coaches' good favor.
First of all, the Patriots experimented with the 3-3-5 defense with 3 safeties during the preseason and have utilized this defense against teams with running backs who are solid receivers (ie: Ravens, Chargers). The three safeties were Pat Chung, Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders at the very beginning of the season. As the season developed, newly acquired Jarrad Page started seeing more time and took playing time away from James Sanders.
So what do those names all have in common?
Pat Chung - Injured knee, may be out a couple weeks.
Jarrad Page - Injured calf, may be out a couple weeks.
James Sanders - Recovering from a hamstring injury, may not be 100%.
Brandon Meriweather - Was not playing to the level expected of him.
Hmm. Meriweather had a quietly solid game against the Chargers, which is hopefully a sign for the future, but the next couple weeks may be rough on the safety depth. Undrafted Free Agent pick-up Strong Safety Sergio Brown emerged as a solid played as he covered tight end Antonio Gates as well as could be expected, but he's still a rookie and should not be considered a given. With so many safeties injured or who cannot be guaranteed to perform at a high level, the Patriots may have to resort to more cornerbacks on the field when the play the 3-3-5 defense.
So when the Patriots welcome the Minnesota Vikings to the Razor, with an offense that features Randy Moss (McCourty?), Percy Harvin (Arrington?), Visanthe Shiancoe (Brown?) and Adrian Peterson (Dane Fletcher?), is there a spot on the defense for Butler to make an appearance? I think so.
While Wilhite has to be expected to take the field against the Vikings, maybe even against Harvin on some sets, if the Vikings split receivers out wide and have Brett Favre air out the ball, Butler may be a perfect player to help the defense. The Vikings feature a very vertical offense, which means that Favre likes to hit his receivers in stride and have them keep going- there are very few hitch routes run, except by Randy Moss (something to look for). Butler struggled with being out of position against the shiftier wide receivers, but he may play well against a straight line offense.
Butler needs to start seeing the field in order to prove himself. I still believe that he has more upside as a corner than Arrington. He just needs to cover the #2 vertical receiver in order to show his talent. He's clearly not ready to cover the #1 vertical receiver of opposing teams, I'll admit that. I just don't believe that Butler's really been given a chance to cover a receiver of comparable talent. I would like to see Butler lined up across from Bernard Berrian or Greg Camarillo on Sunday. I want to see him play for a fair number of snaps, just to see if he plays well as a #2 corner.
As for getting back into the coaches favor, Butler did see some playing time against the Chargers, which meant that the staff believed that he still has some playing potential. Also, Butler received a "practice award" which is given to players who best help prepare the team during the week prior to the game. Other players to receive the award include SS Sergio Brown, ILB Dane Fletcher (3x Winner), OLB Shawn Crable (3x Winner) and G Ryan Wendell (2x Winner), which is pretty good company when looking at players who barely made the roster.
Hopefully Butler continues to impress the coaches and gets the opportunity to see the field.