The New England Patriots have really needed sophomore cornerback Malcolm Butler to stand up as a key member of the defense and, for the most part, he's exceeded every expectation. Head coach Bill Belichick thought that Butler offered the most upside of any cornerback on the roster in 2014 and had no hesitation in squaring off Butler against some of the top receivers in the league.
While Butler has been great for the most part, there have been some pretty big passes completed with Butler in coverage and it's important to understand why these plays happened in order for Butler to get better.
(editor's note: We won't count the Giants 87-yard touchdown to Odell Beckham Jr. because it was the fault of a poor angle from safety Devin McCourty)
1. Steelers 3rd and 6, 2:13 left in the 2nd quarter on the Steelers 21 yard line. 37 yards to Antonio Brown.
It's clear that Malcolm Butler was thinking that wide receiver Antonio Brown was going to be running towards the sticks for the Steelers two minute drill. The last thing Pittsburgh would have wanted would be an incompletion and a subsequent punt to the Patriots with two minutes before the half. The scouting reports all showed that Brown loved to run the stick routes.
Butler trails Brown to take away the underneath and cutback patterns, but Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are on the same page and take the top off the Patriots defense. This was a case of Butler playing the odds and the other team making a play.
2. Bills 1st and 10, 11:48 left in the 4th quarter on the Patriots 32 yard line. 32-yard touchdown to Robert Woods.
The Bills ran a perfect coverage beater as Malcolm Butler was left in coverage of two Bills receivers. There's no right way to defend this and Butler was still an inch away from knocking down the pass. Butler did a poor job of reading the ball's trajectory because it looks like he could have kept moving down the field prior to jumping and defending the ball.
Buffalo ran a perfect counter to the Patriots defensive set, but Butler still could have done a better job at defending the ball.
3. Jaguars 3rd and 6, 6:25 left in the 3rd quarter on the Jaguars 41 yard line. 59-yard touchdown to Allen Hurns.
This is similar to the 3rd down play from Antonio Brown, as Butler tries to catch Hurns before the Jaguars receiver gets into his route. Butler whiffs on the engagement and Hurns has plenty of space to score. This was another poor angle by a Patriots safety, but unlike the Beckham grab, Butler was cleanly beaten by the receiver.
The coaching staff wants their cornerbacks to play physical defense with opposing receivers, especially on third down, and Butler has to do a better job of engaging.
4. Broncos 2nd and 10, 1:56 left in the 4th quarter on the Patriots 47 yard line. 39 yards to Emmanuel Sanders.
The Patriots were caught off guard as Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler threw a perfect pass down towards the goal line. Similar to the Jaguars play, Butler does a poor job of engaging with Sanders and ends up in the catch-up position for the entire play. Good quarterbacks will make a defensive back play, especially in the snow where it's harder for defenders to plant their foot and react to offensive players.
Butler wanted to squeeze Sanders with the sideline, but needed to be more disruptive out of the snap to hamper the Broncos timing. Instead, Sanders had pretty much a free release and open field.
5. Texans 3rd and 19, 4:51 left in the 1st quarter on the Texans 25 yard line. 49 yards to Nate Washington.
Butler's tendencies really show on this huge third down conversion. This was not the fault of safety Duron Harmon as the defense was rolling the coverage to the near side. Butler thought Washington was going to run to first down depth and wanted to and bit on a pump fake from quarterback Brian Hoyer. Hoyer held on and Washington angled up the field for a huge gain.
In these big plays, we've seen a pair of times where Butler misreads the play by defending the sticks instead of the receiver, and also a three times where Butler was unable to get his hands on the receiver to disrupt their route.
Butler has already performed at an exceptionally high level, but he still has room to improve. Opposing teams will continue to set up routes to take advantage of his aggressive style of play and it's up to Butler to learn when he should and shouldn't jump a route.