Replacements and Repercussions

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Replacements and Repercussions

Eye wuz trying to figger out the bess weigh to demmanstrate what its like to whotch an NFL gayme width replasemint refs, and this . . . iz the best that eye cood come up width.

Siriusly, izzent this seaux unbaleevvibly . . . distrackting? Izzent it sew torcherissly belaybered . . . . . . and drawn out?

Oops. Eye take that back . . . Uppawn further revyoo, ayed like to chainj "torcherissly" to . . . painsteakingly. Everyone ghet that? OK, good. Now if ewell excuse me . . . eye knead about five minitts to remember . . . what the hell I was tawking about . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

Ummmm . . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

OK, Im back. Mostly because I doubt you have the patience to put up with much more of that crap. And I guess you could say thats the biggest (and probably only) difference between this column and the NFL.

Youd click out of this page after a few pathetic, disjointed paragraphs and never come back. With the NFL, theyll keep trotting out 10th rate officials, destroying the leagues integrity and insulting your intelligence every step along the way, and youll never leave.

I know I wont. Honestly, there was a moment during last nights game when I really tried to imagine life without the NFL. I wondered if there was ever a situation where the ineptitude of these replacement refs would push me over the edge. Where I'd say: You know, this just isnt worth it anymore." and really mean it.

But theres no way.

And really, thats the most frustrating aspect of this whole mess. That the owners have us in the palm of their withered, old, money-grubbing hands, and they know it. We see Week 3 as another slap in the face. They see a slew of high-scoring classics, three overtimes and a Sunday night game for the ages. We see a league that doesnt care about its players or fans. They see record ratings and a bottom line that would make Mitt Romney blush. And that's obviously a huge problem. In fact, the replacement refs are currently the biggest problem facing this league which is saying something when you consider that other little issue of the game destroying its players' brains.

But here's the truth: As far as the Patriots are concerned, last night's refs are irrelevant.

A few months from now, when teams are scrambling for playoff spots and seeding, no one will care about last night's officials. There's nothing about that loss to the Ravens that will stand out among the countless other games that have been hijacked by this fiasco. Especially since it's only a matter of time before this fiasco is over. It might not happen today or this week or next week, but I guarantee that at some point before the start of the playoffs, Ed Hochuli and his boys will be flexing all over an NFL field near you.

At that point, these first few weeks will be a distant memory, and the only legacy of last night's game will be the final score. That the Ravens walked off with a victory. That the Pats didn't get the job done.

So, let's ask the real question: Why didn't the Pats get the job done?

Was it because of Devin McCourty? There were a few moments earlier this season where it was reasonable to believe that McCourty was ready to put last year's struggles behind him. Last night with his two dropped interceptions, the worst tackle attempt you've ever seen (on Dennis Pitta's touchdown) and his horrendous coverage on the game-sealing pass interference play McCourty looked more lost than ever. The player who was once thought to be the Pats best first round cornerback since Ty Law was back to looking like the worst since Chris Canty.

Was it a matter of Gronk? Rob Gronkowski was targeted only three times against the Ravens. It was only the second time since the start of last season that he finished a game with fewer than four targets. The other time? Super Bowl XLVI.

And has anyone seen Stevan Ridley? No disrespect to Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden. Neither is the reason that the Pats lost, and they both found the end zone. But here's the thing: A lot of NFL backs can do what Woodhead and Bolden did last night. You give any back in this league (aside from maybe Chris Johnson) enough carries and they'll make something of it. On the other hand, wasn't Ridley supposed to be special? A game-changer? A bonafide feature back that would revolutionize the offense and extend Brady's career into the next decade? A player who you'd probably want to carry the ball more than 13 times in the biggest game of the season and not lose snaps to an undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss?

Furthermore, what's going on with the offense in general? Tom Brady had 11 touchdown passes through three weeks last year. In 2010, he had eight after three weeks. Today, he has four. Four touchdown passes in three games and an offense that barely resembles the juggernaut we envisioned coming into the season. Does Josh McDaniels think he gets points for creativity? Why does he call these games like a stoned college kid playing Madden at 3 am on Saturday?

You know, we could go on forever with questions like this. And there's no doubt that we'll cover all that and so much more between now and next Sunday. After all, the Patriots are 1-2 for the first time in more than a decade. It's only natural to be pessimistic.

But that's only one way to look at it.

On the other hand, through all that pessimism, it's sometimes easy to forget that last night in Baltimore, the Patriots went out on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL in a stadium where the Ravens haven't lost since December of 2010 and were the better team for three quarters. They were the better team, despite playing the entire game without their most versatile if not most important offensive player, and the second half without their "No. 2" receiver. Things fell apart at the end, and there's no question that the Pats players deserve a bulk of the blame. But it's also so hard to take any outcome that seriously when these officials are involved. Yes, the Patriots lost. Week 3 of the 2012 season will always count as a loss. But all things considered, did the game leave you feeling that the Pats aren't on the Ravens level? Even in defeat, do you now consider the Patriots to be anything less than one of the top two or three teams in the AFC?

I don't. Instead, all I really take from last night's game and the first three weeks of this season is that the Patriots are an imperfect team playing in a league where no ones perfect. I mean, come on, look around. The Ravens lost last week in Philly and were insanely close to losing at home to a Hernandez-less Pats team. Yesterday, the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The Jets barely beat Miami. The Chargers were destroyed by the Falcons. The Texans are still going strong, but can they stay healthy? Given their track record and the fact that their quarterback's ear just fell off, I'd say the chances are pretty slim.

I'd say that I'm just as confident in the Pats at 1-2 as I would be if any number of calls or bounces had gone their way last night and they sat here this morning at 2-1. That doesn't mean the loss doesn't burn like a flame-thrower to the brain . . . just that New England's Super Bowl aspirations were unscathed in the blaze.

Itz juss two badd wii kant seigh the sayme about tha replasemint reffs.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."