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Patriots’ Malcolm Butler is up to every challenge

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler talks a good game, and he plays one, too.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — Malcolm Butler and Odell Beckham Jr. spent a good part of their Sunday yapping at each other during last week's game, the way receivers and defensive backs are known to do on occasion.

Butler wants it known he didn't initiate the chirping with the Giants standout, and would rather let his play do his talking. However . . .

"If it's going to be a talking game, I'm OK with it. I don't prefer going out there talking trash, but I will compete, and sometimes your emotions get you," Butler said. "I just go out and play. I might say a thing here or there, but I'm not a big fan of talking."


Oh, really?

"If he gets a big [pass breakup] he might say something to you, but it's all in fun," Patriots receiver Aaron Dobson said. "It goes back and forth. Sometimes he might initiate it, sometimes it's the other way around. Going against Malcolm every day these past two years, he's a competitor. He steps up to the challenge."

Butler doesn't shy away from a challenge. He's sought them out, actually, ever since joining the Patriots as an unheralded, undrafted rookie from West Alabama last season. He began his rookie campaign by cutting the line so he could get his shot against a flashy receiver in training camp, and ended it by making perhaps the greatest play in Super Bowl history, a goal-line interception with 26 seconds left that preserved the Patriots' 28-24 victory over Seattle.

Instant stardom can impact a man in many ways, and in Butler's case, he chose to use it as motivation. Not wanting to be known as a one-hit wonder, Butler couldn't have asked for a better situation, with the departures of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner opening up the starting cornerback positions. It was his for the taking, assuming he played well enough to earn one.


Butler has started all nine games at left cornerback for the unbeaten Patriots, and will be at his customary spot on Monday night when the Patriots face the Bills. There's a good chance he'll be opposite Sammy Watkins, Buffalo's best receiver. Covering the opponent's top wideout is usually Butler's assignment.

It hasn't always worked in Butler's favor, but that's the nature of his job. You make plays, you give up plays. Beckham burned Butler for an 87-yard touchdown on the Giants' second snap of last Sunday's game, an early victory in the man-to-man matchup. To Butler's credit, there weren't many more.

Following the touchdown, Beckham was targeted 11 times by Eli Manning. He caught only three more passes, for just 17 more yards. That means the cover man — almost always Butler — won the Beckham battle eight times.

"I did OK, I did a pretty good job, but I'm always looking forward to doing better," Butler offered. "I can tell my game is improving every week, but I never settle for everything. I have to keep grinding and be the best I can."

Butler has given up his share of plays — it's the nature of the job — but he's rarely out of position. He leads the Patriots with 11 passes defended, and has one interception, against the Bills in Week 2.

Another strong part of Butler's play this season has been his open-field tackling, which often gets overlooked. Whether it's his man or someone else with the ball he peels off to bring down, Butler on numerous plays has stopped a receiver just short of a first down, forcing a punt.


But it's his ability to cover high-profile receivers — many of them, such as Watkins (fourth overall in 2014), high draft picks — that Butler is responsible for, and takes pride in. Remember, he went undrafted, and has had to earn everything in a short amount of time. This time last year, Butler was in the middle of a stretch in which he missed five games; four times he was inactive, and the other he suited up but didn't see the field.

"Just coming in as a free agent and knowing that you've got to go out and compete every day in practice and show up and make plays, try to stand out a little bit, that was something we definitely saw from him early," defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "His desire to compete, his intensity with that, has served him well."

Butler admits to playing like he has plenty to prove. He's from a small school and has taller receivers trying to make plays against him. Motivation and short memory are required to play cornerback, and Butler is blessed with both.

Then there are his physical skills, first evident to Patriots fans in training camp last season. Who is that guy making all those plays on the ball? Where's he from? What's his story?


"He does things in practice and drills that many of us can't do, just off athletic ability, different things, in coverage. He has some gifts that are special to him, and he uses them," safety Devin McCourty said. "Not much fazes him throughout the game. He loves to keep going after it, loves the big matchup. That's a huge part of his game, his success."

As for the trash talking?

"It's just like your brother, a good friend, anybody: You're going to compete, you're going to talk trash to each other," Butler said. "At the end of the day, it was just a game, having fun. We both take it serious, but when it's over we've just got to let it go and get ready for the next week."

Next week is here. Sammy Watkins awaits.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.