There are a lot of connection between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans but none comes with as much intrigue as the one with cornerback Malcolm Butler. The story is well known: an undrafted rookie, Butler became an instant star when he made the game-winning interception in Super Bowl 49. However, his tenure in New England ended in controversial fashion, with him getting benched for Super Bowl 52.
Butler left the Patriots after the title game and now is a starting cornerback in Tennessee. However, his performance has not been up to the same standards he set over his three years (minus one game) as a starter in New England: the 28-year old gave up 39 catches so far this season for 618 yards and seven touchdowns. “I shudder to think about what Josh Gordon will do to him,” Jimmy Morris said about Butler.
Leading up to today’s game with spoke with Jimmy, who is covering the Titans as editor-in-chief for our sister site Music City Miracles, about the matchup between the Patriots offense and Tennessee’s defense — and safe to say that Butler has been a weak link for a unit that has its undeniable strengths but has struggled when it comes to defending chunk plays this season: “Their biggest weakness, without question, has been big plays.”
“Malcolm Butler has been the biggest victim,” Jimmy said about the embattled former Patriot who signed a five-year, $61.3 million contract with $30 million in guarantees this offseason. “We are all terrified that Bill Belichick is going to go after Butler early and often in this game to prove why Butler wasn’t on the field in the Super Bowl. He has been burnt by guys like Jordan Matthews and Allen Hurns already this year.”
But while Butler and the Titans have had some issues when it comes to preventing big plays this season, the team still has a very good defense in other aspects. “They have been really good in the red zone,” Jimmy said about the NFL’s number one scoring defense — one that leads the league with just 16.8 points given up per game. “[The red zone defense] has been the biggest thing that has them atop the scoring rankings.”
As already mentioned in this week’s advanced stats breakdown, red zone performance might be the key to the game for the Patriots. “They have given up yards, but they have really #Titanup’d (pun intended) when teams get inside the 20 yard line,” Jimmy noted. “I am interested to see if they can keep that up. It’s pretty easy to be good in the red zone against guys like Blake Bortles. It is a whole different story when facing Tom Brady.”
In order for the Titans to stop Brady and company, a former Patriot defender will need to bring his A-game today: cornerback Logan Ryan. While not the same household name as Butler, Ryan is in the middle of a solid second season in Tennessee. “He isn’t an elite cornerback, but he has been a very consistent performer week in and week out for this defense,” Jimmy noted about the former Patriots third-round pick.
“He was mainly playing as the nickel corner early in the year, but he plays outside in the base defense now because Butler has been so terrible,” he continued. Ryan and Butler are not the only defensive backs to watch today, though. “[A] guy you need to know about is All-Pro safety Kevin Byard,” Jimmy said. “He has been in this news this week after his interception and celebration on the star in Dallas Monday night. He has a lot of range on the backend of this Titans defense.”
The Titans’ star players do not all line up in the secondary, however: the front seven also features some serious talent — led by standout Jurrell Casey. “Casey is the guy that creates the pressure up front,” Jimmy said about the defensive tackle. “He would be a perennial All-Pro if he played for the Patriots, but he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves because he has spent his career with the Titans playing on mainly bad teams.”
“You can believe that Belichick and Josh McDaniels have spent a lot of time this week talking about him,” Jimmy continued. Another player he pointed out is ex-Boston College standout Harold Landry, who was drafted by the Titans in the second round this year and plays as an outside linebacker for the team. “Landry has shown some flashes of being really special with his elite speed and bend off the edge.”
“Having a guy like Landry out there has opened things up for Casey on the inside because teams have to plan for him coming around the edge,” Jimmy pointed out. “Landry will get better as he gets more experience at the NFL level.” And while the rookie will face a big challenge going against the Patriots’ high-quality offensive tackles Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon, Casey might pose a different challenge.
After all, New England will be without starting right guard Shaq Mason today. And while replacement Ted Karras is a solid player, seeing him go up against Casey is a mismatch in the Titans’ favor. Ultimately, the talented defensive tackle and his colleagues in the front seven will try their best to cover any potential shortcomings Butler and the Tennessee secondary might have against New England’s receiving groups.