The New England Patriots’ defense has been spectacular over the first quarter of the 2019 regular season — from the secondary shutting down opposing aerial attacks to the linebackers’ versatility and productivity against the pass and the run, the unit has seen standout performances four weeks in a row. One position group, however, has flown under the radar a bit compared to the others: the defensive tackle spot.
While players such as Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins have made most of the headlines for the game-changing plays they produced on a regular basis, the men up front have received less attention despite being of no less importance to the entire operation. While Lawrence Guy is his usual stout self, Danny Shelton made an impressive second-year jump from rotational role player in 2018 to core piece in 2019.
And then, there’s Adam Butler.
No defensive tackle on the Patriots’ roster has seen as much playing time through Week 4 as Butler, who has been on the field for 130 of the team’s 265 defensive plays so far this season. This workload is noticeably higher than Guy’s and Shelton’s, who have both played exactly 100 snaps so far on defense. And when listening to Bill Belichick, it is not hard to see why he has been entrusted with such a big role in his third year with the team.
“Adam’s a very intelligent player and he has very good football instincts. You can give him a lot of information and he kind of knows when to apply it and when not to apply it,” the Patriots’ head coach said during a conference call earlier this week when asked about Butler and his development over the years. “He’s really absorbed a lot of information since he came here the last two-and-a-half years.”
“His ability to do the right thing at the right time based on a call, or based on the way that the line blocks, or kind of the protections they use, things like that in the pass rush, even in the running game; he does a good job of recognizing those things quickly and making good decisions, which is really hard to do when you’re in-line like that,” he added. “You have so many people close, right on top of you, and especially when he plays on the nose.”
Butler’s history probably plays a reason in his ability to read and react quickly to plays. After all, he started his career at Vanderbilt as an offensive lineman before being asked to move to the other side of the trenches following his redshirt senior season: the team was short-handed on defense, and Butler was seen as a potential fix. Needless to say that the move paid off, even though it did not lead to him getting drafted in 2017.
Ultimately, however, he made his way to the Patriots where the undrafted free agent not only earned a roster spot during his rookie season but quickly developed into an important part of the defensive front: over his first two years with the club, Butler saw regular playing time on both defense and special teams while growing from a primary sub-pass rusher from the interior of the line to a well-rounded and versatile tackle.
“A lot of times there’s three guys that can block him, center and either guard, especially if we’re in an odd front,” said Belichick about the 25-year-old’s usage and how he handles its responsibilities. “It’s a tough position to play, but he does an excellent job of using his quickness, using his length and making really good football decisions based on what happens in a very short amount of time.”
“You can coach those things — and we do — but to make those decisions as quickly as he makes them, and as instinctively as he does it is pretty good. It’s pretty unique,” added the Patriots’ head coach. “All players get better with coaching, all players get better with experience, but his growth in three years now has really been impressive; his ability to adapt and adjust depending on who he’s working with on the defensive line.”
So far this season, the process has worked well. Not only has Butler seen a bigger share of defensive playing time when compared to years one and two, he also has produced in whichever role he was asked to play. Just take last week’s game against the Buffalo Bills as an example, when he played almost two thirds of New England’s defensive snaps and made one of the most impressive play on a day filled with many of them.
Up just six points in the early fourth quarter, the Patriots were backed up at their own goal line against a Bills offense that had just lost its starting quarterback to a concussion. The adjustment period after Josh Allen’s injury allowed backup Matt Barkley to drive the home team deep into New England territory. With a 3rd and goal from the 2-yard line coming up, however, Buffalo trusted veteran running back Frank Gore to carry the football.
He did not go anywhere. Butler kept his forward momentum intact despite a cut-block attempt by Bills center Mitch Morse, and able to tackle the ball carrier for a loss of one yard. Buffalo decided to go for it on fourth down, and ultimately had to turn the ball over on an incomplete pass attempt. The team never came this close again to taking the lead as it fell 16-10 to the Patriots. And while other players made the “bigger” plays, the impact Butler’s tackle had cannot be underestimated.
The same goes for his entire role within New England’s outstanding defense: he may not be the biggest name or headline-grabbing star, but he does his job well and has earned the coaching staff’s trust. Quite the development for the former draft day afterthought.