There’s a reason why the New England Patriots asked Eric Rowe and Logan Ryan to cover the taller and more physical wide receivers in 2016. There’s a reason why that responsibility continued into 2017 with Rowe and Stephon Gilmore covering the bigger receivers.
But what happens when the Patriots face a team like the Carolina Panthers with a pair of 6’4+ wide receivers and Rowe is dealing with a groin injury? Well, Malcolm Butler has to step up into a role that isn’t ideal for his physical frame.
“Kelvin Benjamin, [Devin] Funchess [are] two very large receivers,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said before the game. “Guys that can push the ball vertical downfield, have great hands, they’re long, they can really cause some problems from the standpoint of coverage where the quarterback can throw the ball up.”
“Those guys are like having tight ends flexed out there,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about Benjamin and Funchess before the game. “Unless you have somebody with that kind of height and length, which nobody really does, wherever the receiver is there is somewhere you can throw him the ball that the defender can’t get it, so he’s never really covered even if he’s covered. You either throw it high, or if he’s on one side you throw it to the other side and he can reach it and the defender can’t.”
Benjamin is 6’5 and 245 pounds, according to the Panthers roster. Funchess is 6’4 1⁄4 and 225 pounds. They are both ginormous targets for Cam Newton and they can use their bodies to box out defenders to make catches and move the chains.
Butler, who stands at 5’9 3⁄4 and 190 pounds, never had a chance.
And so here’s Butler in man coverage of Funchess on the nearside of the screen...
...and here’s Butler in man coverage of Funchess on the near side of the screen, again...
...and here Butler is again in man coverage on the far side of the screen, this time against 6’5 Kelvin Benjamin.
On all three plays, the Panthers used running back Christian McCaffrey to draw the linebacker out of the passing lane- either by play-action or by running into the flat- leaving a quick inside passing lane for Cam Newton to find the receiver.
The receivers used a fake step outside to try and turn Butler, but cutting inside and using their bodies to shield the ball away from the defender and to make the grab.
It’s not like Butler’s playing poor coverage, either. He was a step too far away from Funchess on the touchdown grab because he was worried about the fade, but he’s in the best possible position on the other two plays. He simply doesn’t have the size or length to break up the pass from the backside of the receiver.
So when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trot out 6’4 3⁄4, 230-pound All Pro receiver Mike Evans, the Patriots really shouldn’t put Butler in coverage. Or if they do, they need to make sure the linebacker doesn’t bite on the motion by the running back. Or they need to have the safety drop down to take away the inside leverage.
But I guarantee that the Buccaneers watched these plays and they’re going to try their hardest to get Evans lined up across from Butler on third down.