1. In the midst of all the focus on the New England Patriots linebackers, the team’s best cornerback might have become team’s best defensive player. After some early season struggles against the Cardinals and Dolphins, CB Malcolm Butler has been on an absolute tear since week 3.
Over the past 6 games, Butler has allowed 12 receptions on 36 targets (33.3%) for 145 yards, and 10 passes defended (1 interception, 9 break-ups), according to NESN’s Doug Kyed. He's allowed just one touchdown over that span (Bengals WR Brandon LaFell) and 94 of those 145 yards were against WR Antonio Brown and the Steelers.
It should be noted that outside of Brown, Butler has gone against the opposing team’s #2 receiver and an incredibly weak slate of quarterbacks, but he’s been absolutely dominant in his role. That similar to how the Patriots used CB Darrelle Revis at times in 2014, so if a #2 cornerback can step up with safety help, then the secondary will be fine.
Butler is going to be a restricted free agent after this season. Will he sign a long term extension, or will he bet on himself to stay healthy and continue to improve in 2017, and greatly increase his contract value? Butler is definitely the 1B contract to LB Dont’a Hightower’s 1A.
2. At #2 cornerback, Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe have drawn the short straw and matched up against the likes of Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, Bills WR Robert Woods (Sammy Watkins is injured), and Bengals WR A.J. Green. It has not been pretty.
Over the same time frame that Butler has been dominating, Ryan and Rowe have been floundering. THey have combined to allow 25 receptions on 41 targets (61.0%) for 293 yards, an additional 58 yards via defensive pass interference, and a touchdown, with just two passes defended.
Now I want to state that Ryan has been in fantastic position in coverage and has been an inch away from making a big play on multiple occasions, and that Rowe was hosed by the officials on those pass interference calls against the Bills:
But the results are the results and the #2 cornerback position has been a weakness this year.
3. So who will step up as the #2 cornerback? I believe that Logan Ryan will be back at #2 this week and I believe that Rowe will get his time on the field, especially against tight ends like he did against the Steelers. Justin Coleman is best against speedy, straight line receivers (think Ravens WR Mike Wallace or Dolphins WR Kenny Stills) and rookie Cyrus Jones hasn’t really been able to prove himself this year.
I think the ideal Patriots defensive back combination would include Butler, Ryan, Rowe, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung. Butler can match up on I think the ideal Patriots defensive back combination would include Butler, Ryan, Rowe, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung.
Butler can match up on the opposing team’s top quick receiver- we’re talking Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders, Lions WR Marvin Jones, and Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin- with Ryan defending the bigger receiver on the other side of the field.
Rowe and McCourty have the ability to play both cornerback and safety and can cover the tight end or drop back into deep coverage. This allows the secondary more versatility in zone and can disguise man schemes. Chung can function as a linebacker in coverage of running backs and against slot receivers and can also cover tight ends underneath.
Duron Harmon will continue to play because he’s a good safety, while McCourty will play the role I have envisioned for Rowe. There is talent in the secondary; it’s just a matter of finding a scheme that works.
4. The Patriots secondary has excelled at preventing the big play (defined as plays that go for 30+ yards). The defense has allowed just 8 plays for 30+ yards, the 3rd fewest in the NFL. They’ve allowed just 2 plays for 40+ yards, the best in the league. Only one of these plays were in the run game (week 1 Cardinals RB David Johnson, 45 yards).
It might seem like the Patriots defense has allowed big chunks of yards, but they’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding game-changing plays and complementing the offense.
The Patriots offense has 20 plays of 30+ yards, tied for 2nd most in the NFL (behind only the Falcons). TE Rob Gronkowski leads the league with 9 plays of 30+ yards, despite only really being a factor in four games. No other player has more than 7 plays of 30+ yards.
The Patriots defense is good enough to get a stop or three at the beginning of the game- or at least hold the other team to a field goal- which allows the potent offense to rack up a multi-score lead. This forces the other team to stop running the ball, allowing the defense to drop back into coverage.
The Patriots offense avoids turning the ball over and special teams doesn’t give up big returns, making it extremely difficult for an opponent to mount a comeback.
5. The one place the Patriots really need to improve is on the defensive line in the passing game. I think the defense misses DT Dominique Easley’s ability to flush the quarterback into the clutches of the edge defenders and they could also use an infusion of talent on the defensive front.
I think the quartet of Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, and Woodrow Hamilton are exceptional against the run, but none of them can offer consistent pressure up the middle on the passing game. Valentine has the athleticism to make some noise up the middle, but he is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Easley when you look at his skill set.
On the other hand, the upcoming draft might have the best depth at edge defender since 2012 with Chandler Jones, Whitney Mercilus, Olivier Vernon, Vinny Curry, Nick Perry, and more. Jabaal Sheard should be a priority to return and Trey Flowers should see a bigger role, but additional talent would greatly benefit the rotation.
The way the Patriots are scouting and their history of drafting would show that New England could very well select another defensive trench player in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft.