For the first time in 38 games, cornerback Malcolm Butler started a game on the sidelines for the Patriots.
Eric Rowe started in place of Butler Sunday, which came as one of the biggest surprises in the 36-20 win at New Orleans. Since Butler secured the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl victory with his clutch interception three years ago, he has been one of the team’s best defensive players. He was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and a second-team All-Pro last season.
Butler’s sour beginning percolated into a misplay on one of New Orleans’s touchdowns, as the cornerback got tangled in a “pick” play that led to a score.
Butler’s decreased playing time may have been a result of New Orleans having tall, physical receivers. Brandon Coleman (6 feet 6 inches) and Michael Thomas (6-3) tower over Butler’s 5-11 frame. The Patriots played their big nickel package, with three safeties and two cornerbacks, to combat the Saints’ length.
Bill Belichick has practically patented the term “situational football,” and he tries to deploy the players that fit the opponent and scenario best. But Butler has been nearly an every-down cog in the defense the past two seasons, playing 98.9 percent of the defensive snaps in 2015 and 96.6 last season.
Despite playing more than Rowe (who got injured), Butler played in only 75.4 percent of the defensive snaps Sunday. He didn’t come off the field in the opener against Kansas City.
“I think what things have gone down in the past doesn’t really matter to us,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said on Tuesday’s conference call. “We’re trying to get better for this year.”
Nearly four weeks ago, Belichick raved about Butler’s ball skills, calling him aggressive and instinctive. The coach’s tone seemed different during Tuesday’s conference call, as he responded to a question about Butler in cryptic terms.
“We’re into a new season, so I don’t think anybody’s performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be,” Belichick said. “We all need to do a better job — players, coaches, all of us across the board.
“Hopefully, we’ll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That’s why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully we’ll all be able to improve.”
Belichick frequently generalizes about the entire team’s need to improve when he is asked to assess a player’s poor performance or explain a lack of playing time. But the coach’s sidestep to the question on Butler was in contrast to his praise for other players.
Belichick lauded Lawrence Guy for being a “pleasure to coach.” When asked about David Harris’s absence from the game plan in the first two games, Belichick hinted that Harris will be more involved as future opportunities come.
He said Rowe has a “much better understanding” of the Patriots system this year after he was traded from the Eagles last year.
“He’s definitely gaining with the experience that he’s received and earned,” Belichick said.
Plenty of conversation this summer surrounded Butler’s desire to sign a long-term deal, which didn’t happen. He signed a $3.91 million tender for the 2017 season. Meanwhile, the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal, the sixth-richest among current cornerbacks.
It’s unknown whether Butler fell out of favor with Belichick in recent weeks, but his playing time will be important to monitor as the season progresses.
Break it up
One Patriot who impressed his coaches Sunday was second-year cornerback Jonathan Jones. He broke up two potential big plays that helped keep the Patriots’ lead at a comfortable margin.
In the second quarter, Jones dislodged a potential touchdown from receiver Ted Ginn’s hands, forcing the Saints to settle for a field goal. The touchdown would have cut the Patriots’ lead to 20-16.
Jones also broke up a potentially long gain to Coleman later in the third quarter, which earned him praise from Belichick.
“It was textbook technique, what we teach all of our players to do, but it’s a great illustration of Jonathan doing it and having two big plays, two very productive plays,” Belichick said. “It came up twice in that game, which is, I’d say, is a little bit unusual, that the frequency would be that.
“But when it does come up, it’s such an important play that we’ve got to play it properly. It’s so critical to play it properly because of the importance of the play. Again, he did a great job on that, and those will be great teaching tapes for him, both him and our other players, that when they’re in that position, to see how he did it properly and how successful that was.”
After Sunday’s game, Belichick caught up with Steve Gleason, a former Saint who was diagnosed with ALS and has inspired many around the world. “I have a ton of respect for him, and the difficult situation that he’s in and his family, but he’s a tremendous person and has a great will,” Belichick said Tuesday. “I know he’s an inspiration to all of us.” . . . CBS announcers Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, and Evan Washburn will call the Patriots-Texans game Sunday . . . After taking Tuesday off, the Patriots will return to practice Wednesday.