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Patriots notebook: This week, Malcolm Butler earns praise from defensive coordinator Matt Patricia

September 27, 2017

A week after losing his starting role, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler regained it against the Houston Texans with Eric Rowe out because of an injury, and he played much better while being in on all the defensive snaps in Sunday’s 36-33 win in Foxboro.

Last week, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia alluded to players like Butler needing to earn their playing time, but yesterday the corner earned some praise.

“I thought Malcolm played really well,” Patricia said on a conference call. “We certainly didn’t play great at all as a defense. I’m not saying that, but I think the guys really tried to go out and play extremely hard. This is a very competitive guy. Malcolm steps up to the challenges that he plays in front of him, goes out and competes, he works hard, he tries to do it the right way, and he really tries to get better every week. And so, look, we had a productive week last week for him and working through, but it’s a new week, and we’re going to try to get the same consistency every single week, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

“That’s what we’re really trying to go after. But I really thought in the game, he really tried to do what we asked him to do and do it the right way.”

Challenge continues

After rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson came into Foxboro and nearly led the Texans to an upset Sunday, the Patriots are searching for answers on the defensive side. And the 32nd-ranked unit in the NFL will need to figure it out quickly.

The next challenge? Veteran Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

The Pats are in the midst of a difficult run against mobile quarterbacks. First it was Watson, who passed for 301 yards and ran for 41 more as he made a number of plays with his legs. Next is Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, before they face Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers a week from Thursday in Tampa.

“We obviously had some struggles (against Houston), and we need to do a better job,” Patricia said. “The unfortunate part about it for us is Cam Newton is next up. This guy is just so dangerous — his ability to get out of the pocket, his ability to escape tackles. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he’s deceptively fast. (It will) be a huge challenge for us. This guy is an outstanding player.”

Newton has struggled for the 2-1 Panthers, with a 61.4 completion percentage and 69.7 passer rating, which ranks 29th in the league. But given his ability and its struggles against mobile quarterbacks, the Pats defense is in no position to take him for granted.

Patricia said the No. 1 priority on defense is to tackle better.

McCaffrey, meanwhile, is as shifty as they come and is the type of pass-catching back the Pats struggle to defend.

“He’s definitely a passing threat and a running threat and a return threat,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of McCaffrey. “Some of those passes that are in the receiving category are really, I’d say, pretty close to runs. But regardless, he’s a very explosive player, a dangerous player.”

Kuechly’s clutch

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, The Associated Press’ NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and a former Boston College star, is the Panthers’ defensive leader. The Panthers are No. 2 in total defense.

Kuechly earned kudos from Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

“He’s an exceptional player,” McDaniels said. “The first thing I’d say is I’m not sure we’ll play against a better field general that has command over what they’re doing on defense. Obviously, he’s well-prepared. You can tell. It jumps out on the film that he’s done his homework. He works extremely hard to be prepared for each opponent that they play. He has a lot of responsibility.

“He’s probably the best pass-game linebacker that we play because he’s such an exceptional reader of the quarterback. He’s got great hands and instincts, he understands route concepts. He’s a tremendous player. I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for this guy.”