Entering the 2015 season, the biggest question mark looking at the New England Patriots' roster was the cornerback position. The team's top three corners from their championship 2014 campaign were all gone and replaced either by young, unproved players or by journeymen.
Oh, and by Malcolm Butler.
While the secondary as a whole performed admirably this season, Butler in particular stands out. After making the game-clinching interception in Super Bowl XLIX, he stated that he worked hard to not be defined by this one play. Halfway through his first season as the Patriots' number one cornerback, he is on his way to do just that (even though he will always be defined by that play, that's just the nature of it).
Butler's game against the New York Giants and their number one wide receiver – Odell Beckham Jr. – was a perfect example for Butler's sophomore season so far. While it wasn't 100% perfect, Butler made some great plays to limit the impact of the opponent's biggest offensive weapon. On Sunday, it was a battle on a very high level and it showed that Butler is capable of playing with the best receivers in the game.
Let's take a look at a few key plays from the Patriots-Giants showdown to analyze Butler's performance against Beckham.
1) 2-6-NYG 13 (6:03) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass deep right to 13-O.Beckham Jr. for 87 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
After the Patriots' first drive put them up 7-0, the Giants answered with a touchdown drive of their own – one that lasted only two plays. The second of those plays was a pass from Eli Manning to Beckham. New York had 11 personnel on the field and the Patriots countered with a cover 1 man-to-man look. Butler – a sign of things to come – was assigned the Giants' number one receiver:
Butler actually started the play in a good position and forced Beckham to the boundary. However, the receiver was able to run past the defensive back to get inside position again and catch Manning's pass:
Devin McCourty, who was the single high safety on the play, had a chance to limit the damage but took a bad angle. On film, it looks as if McCourty expected Beckham to run straight ahead and not cut back inside. Alas, that's what the pass catcher did and instead of a 25-yard completion, the play turned into a 87-yard touchdown.
Multiple things went wrong on the play: Butler was unable to keep up with Beckham, in part due to the cornerback not being physical enough within the first five yards from the line of scrimmage, while McCourty simply misjudged the play – all while Beckham made a really good play.
In a game as close as this one, every mistake could have been the difference between winning and losing. Fortunately for the Patriots, their top two defensive backs were able to rebound.
2) 3-8-NYG 46 (7:14) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass short middle to 13-O.Beckham Jr. to NYG 47 for 1 yard (21-M.Butler).
The following play is very similar to a second-down pass to Beckham in the Patriots' red zone earlier in the third quarter. Beckham caught a four-yard pass but was immediately tackled by Butler, who was in a good position to limit yards after the catch. The same happened on this play.
New York, leading 20-10, was facing a 3rd and 8 and again operated out of 11 personnel. The Patriots again countered with a cover 1 man-to-man look (this time, Duron Harmon was the deep safety) and Butler on Beckham. Prior to the snap, the receiver motioned from the offensive left side of the formation to the right, with Butler trailing him and thus indicating man coverage:
After the snap, Beckham ran a shallow crossing route, which led to Butler having to maneuver his way through traffic in order to follow his man:
It was a well designed play by Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, as the two receivers on the left side of the formation ran deep patterns to clear the space underneath. With the defenders on this side of the formation out of the way, the crossing receiver would have had a lot of space to operate in front of him – and pick up a critical first down.
The plan, in theory, was a good one but the Patriots – particularly Malcolm Butler – defended it well. The second-year cornerback showed some great vision and closing speed on the play and was able to tackle Beckham for a gain of only one yard. New York went 3-and-out, had to punt the ball away, and Danny Amendola returned the kick 82-yards to the Giants' 11-yard line. A momentum-changing sequence of plays.
3) 3-7-NE 35 (1:00) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass incomplete short left to 13-O.Beckham Jr. (21-M.Butler).
Butler and Beckham again matched up on a critical 3rd down late in the third quarter, with the home team up 20-17. As has been the case the following two plays we looked at, New England countered the Giants' 11 personnel look with a cover 1 alignment (Harmon as the lone deep safety and McCourty the underneath defender) that left Butler on an island with Beckham, who lined up at the far left of the formation:
On this play, Butler did a great job staying with the receiver. He was patient immediately after the snap, when Beckham tried to force him to show his hand because of the receiver's stutter steps, and was close to the receiver's hips even when he broke his route to the inside:
Butler was in very good position to break up Manning's pass, which was thrown close to the ground but still catchable. The defender simply made a great play to knock the ball incomplete.
4) 1-10-NYG 20 (11:33) (Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass incomplete short right to 13-O.Beckham Jr. (21-M.Butler).
With the Patriots up 24-23 early in the fourth quarter, the Giants needed to answer. They tried via targeting Beckham – and naturally Butler as well – on three consecutive plays. The first came on 1st and 10. The Patriots were in cover 2 man-to-man initially but switched to a cover 1 robber concept, with Harmon as the lone deep safety and McCourty cheating towards the line of scrimmage.
From the Giants' perspective, the play was a designed roll-out to target Beckham, who aligned on the far right of the formation:
Butler, however, displayed great technique and feel for the play in running with Beckham while simultaneously keeping his eyes on the quarterback. Not over-committing to a deep pattern allowed the cornerback to turn his hips when Beckham stopped 10 yards into his route to catch the ball:
Due to his position, Butler was able to knock the ball away. The Giants ran a similar play on 2nd down, but Manning had not enough time to step into his throw because of a blitzing Patrick Chung and the ball fell incomplete.
5) 3-10-NYG 20 (11:21) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass incomplete deep right to 13-O.Beckham Jr..
On 3rd and 10, New York tried something else – although Beckham was still the intended target. Again, both teams were in their predominant alignments; the Giants with 11 personnel on the field, the Patriots countering with cover 1 man coverage:
Beckham, as he did on the previous two plays, lined up on the far right side of the formation but this time didn't go for the comeback route. Instead, he ran a go route – similar to the one on his first touchdown. This time, however, Butler did a better job of staying with his receiver and shadowed him the entire time:
Not only did Butler hang with Beckham the entire time, he also timed his jump to potentially break up the pass perfectly. The ball was well placed by Manning but Butler did a good job of getting his hands up and not letting Beckham catch it cleanly. Beckham was unable to haul in the pass, it fell incomplete, and the Giants had to punt.
6) 1-5-NE 5 (2:06) (Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass short left to 13-O.Beckham Jr. for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN. The Replay Official reviewed the pass completion ruling, and the play was REVERSED. (Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass incomplete short left to 13-O.Beckham Jr. (21-M.Butler).
The last time Manning targeted Butler in coverage of Beckham came late in the fourth quarter with New York close to taking the lead. It wouldn't come on 1st down, though. The Patriots played cover 0, with Butler covering Beckham man-to-man on the left side of the offensive formation:
Beckham ran a corner route and made one small adjustment to Manning's jump ball at the top of it, which left Butler one step behind:
However, Butler reacted quickly and was able to knock the football lose before Beckham had completed the process of catching it – and therefore prevented the go-ahead touchdown. It was the final time, the 25-year old was targeted in the game.
Overall, Butler's game against the Giants was arguably the best 60-minute performance of his career, especially considering the opponent he was asked to cover on an island – after all, Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the premier wide receivers in the game. Butler handled his assignment very well and displayed great technique and mental toughness (rebounding from a forgettable first play), all while playing with a nice dose of swagger.
When the Patriots let Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington walk in free agency, their hope was that Butler can step up to soften the blow. Step up he did – and is establishing himself as a legimitate number one cornerback.