Guregian: Even Malcolm Butler, Alan Branch have to earn their way onto the field
MAPLEVILLE, R.I. — We wondered what Bill Belichick would do for Week 2 after watching his Patriots defense get thoroughly embarrassed opening night by the Chiefs.
Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia made some tweaks all right, some minor, others not so subtle.
But there also was a telling message when looking at the defensive starters against the Saints, along with subsequent deployment of personnel.
No Malcolm Butler.
No Alan Branch.
It’s no secret. Belichick is going to play the guys who give him the best shot to win. He’s going with the players who are performing the best now and are fully on board with the program. He doesn’t care who you are or how many Super Bowls you’ve won for him.
You still have to earn your job.
“Yeah, I saw they had some personnel changes,” said newly retired Rob Ninkovich, on hand yesterday for Matt Light’s Celebrity Shootout. “I think they were stirring the pot to try and get guys motivated. I know they do a lot of different things to try and motivate guys. They’ll push buttons to try and get the best out of people. At the same time, they’re trying to get the best guys on the field.”
In Butler’s case, the cornerback struggled during the preseason, and that’s carried into the season. So he was removed from the beginning of the Saints game. Eric Rowe started opposite Stephon Gilmore, putting a halt to Butler’s streak of 38 consecutive starts.
The Saints did have taller receivers (Michael Thomas and Brandon Coleman), which might favor the use of Rowe, but that didn’t wash when Butler was later used against both Thomas and Coleman.
Belichick has been evasive in answering Butler questions, which should tell you plenty along with the move itself. Butler prides himself on being an elite NFL cornerback. It’s hard to recall any shutdown corners of note being taken off the field at any time of the game.
The message to Butler seemed pretty clear: Improve your play.
It seems fairly evident he’ll be gone after the season when he hits free agency. It’s also possible he’ll be gone sooner via trade if he doesn’t get his game together.
Whatever capital Butler earned as the hero of Super Bowl XLIX isn’t helping him now.
Even Patricia is focusing on the present.
“It’s all about this year,” Patricia said. “I think what things have gone down in the past don’t really matter to us. We’re trying to get better for this year and the guys that are out there and positions are where we think they need to be right now currently, and to help us win that particular week. So, certainly with Eric Rowe involved, having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint. I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field, and whatever that is, depending on how the game is going, kind of just plays itself out when we’re in the particular situation we’re in.”
For his part, Rowe, who could start on many teams, was making the most of his opportunity until suffering a groin injury.
Belichick also had plenty of good things to say about Rowe and Jonathan Jones. Rowe’s injury opened the door for the second-year cornerback. Jones made two pivotal pass breakups, one in the end zone. Belichick called the plays “textbook” from a technique standpoint.
“I thought on both of those plays the technique that he used to finish the play, the final reception point, was excellent. Perfect,” Belichick said. “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. Those are good examples for us to show, not only him, but all of the other players in terms of playing those types of passes and finishing in the situation that he was in.”
Butler was victimized for one of the Saints’ scores in the 36-20 win. Not what Belichick was looking for. Not textbook.
Then there’s Branch.
The veteran defensive tackle, one of the team’s best players in 2016, had a dreadful game against the Chiefs. He got pushed backward by Kansas City center Mitch Morse, losing his gap way too many times. So he was handed a seat in favor of Lawrence Guy, who started against the Saints.
Guy, on cue, seized his opportunity. He saw more time up front and took advantage. Branch was only on the field for six snaps.
Undrafted rookie Adam Butler also saw more time up front, as did Deatrich Wise because of the absence of Dont’a Hightower. Wise really capitalized, showing he was capable of providing a pass rush.
So they’re tinkering and pushing a few buttons.
“They’re still working in new pieces and getting a feel, but you need to have everyone coming together,” Ninkovich said. “You need to build that chemistry so as the season progresses, everyone’s coming together at the right time.”