The New England Patriots are trying to find a replacement for All Pro Darrelle Revis and they threw their top choice directly into the fire. Cornerback Malcolm Butler was expected to match-up with 2014 receiving leader Antonio Brown in a match-up that could very easily be the toughest draw of the year.
Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had Butler shadow Brown for most of the game (there was one zone coverage where Butler passed off Brown. The pass to Brown fell incomplete). The Patriots used a combination of Cover Two and Cover One looks with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon as the deep safeties.
Brown's final statline was a terrific 12 targets for 9 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown. This could imply that Butler had a bad game. We went to the tape to see how Butler actually performed on a snap-by-snap basis against Brown.
1. Screen pass for 9 yards. Butler had little chance to make a play on the screen.
2. Impossible catch for 10 yards. Butler had fantastic coverage of Brown who made an impossible catch early in the game. The Patriots had one deep safety and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger immediately looked to Brown. This targeting with a single deep safety was a common theme during the game.
3. Screen pass for 3 yards. The Steelers ran another screen, but Butler still disrupts the play for a quick tackle on 1st and 15.
4. Deep backshoulder pass to Brown that falls incomplete on 3rd and 3. Brown doesn't look back and Butler is with him stride for stride. The Patriots are again in single-deep coverage.
5. Screen pass similar to the Super Bowl play that results in a 5-yard stop by Butler and Tarell Brown. Well defended.
6. Fly on 3rd and 6 for 37 yards. On the All-22 camera angle, the whole Patriots defense is clearly coached to defend the comeback route at the sticks because that's one of Ben Roethlisberger's go-to passes. The Steelers throw a wrench with Brown running down the field out of the slot, so Butler loses contact.
While it's easy to highlight a case of a player doing what they're coached instead of letting their instincts take over, Butler definitely eases up on the gas as Brown is running past him. From the coaching camera, it looks like Butler thought Brown was drive-faking before pulling up and that he was being smart by not biting on a fake.
This was a great play by the Steelers where the Patriots defenders played the odds and lost.
1st Half Summary
5/6 for 64 yards. Three screen plays that no defender could've stopped. One miscommunication by the Steelers offense. One ridiculous catch by Brown with Butler in perfect coverage. One well drawn play by the Steelers, with a misplay by Butler.
7. Stop-and-go, 33 yards. This catch came on the back of a 28-yard run by DeAngelo Williams after the Steelers went down 21-3.
The Steelers go to Brown with the Patriots in single-deep coverage. Butler absolutely bites on this route by Brown. Serious misplay by Butler on 1st and 10.
8. Low crosser for a 12 yard gain on 3rd and 6. Butler was in coverage, but was clipped by Darrius Heyward-Bey to generate separation. Can't really fault him too heavily for getting knocked off coverage, although there's always room for improvement.
Butler clipped by DHB on a crosser on 3rd and 6, gives Brown plenty of room. pic.twitter.com/MA9QoGonEA— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) September 14, 2015
Competitive Game End Summary
7/8 for 109 yards. Two misplays by Butler led to 70 yards by Antonio Brown. Another 10 yards came on Brown's fantastic job wrestling the ball early in the game. Four receptions came on designed separation routes where no defender would have a chance.
The Steelers made a point of attacking Butler when he was on an island and they were successful. When the Patriots offered two deep safeties, Roethlisberger looked to the underneath passes to tight end Heath Miller and running back DeAngelo Williams.
Butler was in good position for all but two of his coverage snaps, and those were the big plays on the day due to the single deep safety. Those two big plays came on snaps where Butler was anticipating a comeback route, but instead Brown ran down the field. While it's easy to call it a repeat mistake, the scenarios were very different and Butler will hopefully learn from them moving forward.
While Butler has a few more great match-ups on the horizon- as early as next week against the Bills' Sammy Watkins- Brown could be his toughest match-up of the season. I wouldn't necessarily call it a good day, but it was a day that wasn't bad while shadowing the league's leading receiver of 2014. There was a lot to takeaway from this game for Butler and hopefully he can use the lessons (don't bite so hard on the comeback routes!) to grow.
Garbage Time (Patriots up two touchdowns after the 2-minute warning)
9. Intermediate In route, 13 yard gain on 3rd and 6. Patriots goal is to drain the clock so Butler made sure Brown didn't have access to the sideline.
10. (canceled by offensive line penalty) Combination back-shoulder route up the sideline where Brown snakes with a fellow receiver trying to shake Butler. Butler sticks in quality coverage, but misses the ball because he's trying to stay with Brown. Brown catches for what would have been a 29-yard pass.
11. Smash route for an 11-yard touchdown grab with 7 seconds left in the game. Malcolm Butler is in absolutely tremendously overage and he read the route perfectly. He's looking back at the pass. The ball just goes through his hands. That's a one-in-ten completion.
Garbage Time Summary
2/2 for 24 yards and a touchdown per the stat sheet, 3/3 for 53 yards and a touchdown per actual completions. Butler was still fairly competitive and the Patriots were successful in killing the clock.