Pats look for an edge with Ninkovich at DE

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Pats look for an edge with Ninkovich at DE

FOXBORO - Major defensive change for the 2012 Patriots was first augured during the draft.

The selection of purebred, upfield pass rusher, Chandler Jones and the subsequent selection of appliance-sized linebacker Dont'a Hightower meant that the personnel would more closely fit the scheme. And Bill Belichick said as much during the draft, noting the front-seven personnel needed tweaking.

Spending first round picks on spots the team traditionally tried to fill with NFL bargain bin castoffs and has-beens meant two things. First, if Jones and Hightower fit, the defense would be simplified. Second, if they worked out, the players who'd manned their spots would be available for different duties.

Which brings us to Rob Ninkovich.

A defensive end at Purdue and in his first three vagabond NFL seasons, when Ninkovich landed in New England, he joined the long line of DEs introduced to life away from the line, standing up and playing outside linebacker.

Nobody could have predicted how well he'd take to it. By 2011, Ninkovich became a true pass rush threat off the edge and a heady playmaker off the line. Vrabelesque? Yeah. A reasonable facsimile.

But the personnel and scheme change to a base 4-3 alignment means Ninkocvivh is SOL at OLB. Now he's back to defensive end. Hand in the dirt, playing (generally) over the tight end on the left side of the defense where most teams like to run.

"Coming into camp I knew that obviously there were going to be some changes theres always change in training camp so I was able to go to a position Ive played before, which is defensive end," said Ninkovich. "Its a little more of 'go get the quarterback, go get the ball' type mentality, so its fun for me.

Since absolutes are not something Bill Belichick embraces, the coach spoke generally about what Ninkovich will be doing in 2012.

"Robs always played at the end of the line of scrimmage so thats still where he plays," Belichick said when asked about the move to defensive end. "Some things hes doing this year hes done in the past, maybe in different frequencies or percentages but hes still fundamentally an end-of-the-line player. I see him as an end-of-the-line player thats the way I would classify him. You can call him whatever you want, it doesnt matter to me."

The geography is less important than the work orders, though, and Ninkovich's are changing a bit.

We know he can rush. He's proven that. How well will he stack and set the edge in the running game? That's a question. Doing it from a two-point stance off the line is different than doing it from a three-point stance where you're an arm's length from the tight end or tackle. Will he get enveloped? Will he get pushed downfield?

"I've always been pretty strong," Ninkovich countered. "Tight ends, I've been able to handle them. Tackles, both of em, at the same time. I should be all right. I've been doing it for a long time, its just something you get your techniqie right, get your hand placement right. In that position it's more about technique and leverage than it is about brute strength."

In each off the past two seasons, Ninkovich has had two picks. He also had a very respectable 10.5 sacks in the two years.

"The more things you can do, the more versatile you are for the team, the more you're gonna help the team out.

"In college, (defensive end) was my position, my first couple of years in the NFL that's the only position I played. I came here and learned how to play outside linebacker. It's something I'm adding to the bag of tricks. If you can play defensive end, if you can play outside linebacker, overall it helps everything."

Butler earns praise from Belichick, Patricia after wire-to-wire performance

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Butler earns praise from Belichick, Patricia after wire-to-wire performance

FOXBORO -- Malcolm Butler left Sunday's win over the Texans feeling pretty good about himself. One week after being relegated to the No. 3 corner role on the Patriots defense, he played every snap and allowed just two catches for 10 yards.

“I think I’m building,” Butler said afterward. “I think I’m taking it a step at a time. There’s a lot of football to be played, so whatever you see, judge me.”

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And we have. There was the pass-interference penalty in Week 1. There was the botched pick-play coverage with Patrick Chung in Week 2. But even with those mishaps mixed in, Butler's energy and effort did not seem to wane on film.

He caught Chiefs speedster Tyreek Hill for a tackle from behind to prevent a first down in the season-opener. Against the Saints, his hard pass breakup on top Saints wideout Michael Thomas was a bright spot for the Patriots secondary.

In Week 3, that effort was there again. Targeted twice while in coverage on DeAndre Hopkins, Butler did well to jam Hopkins at the line of scrimmage and then limit the game's highest-paid receiver to zero yards after the catch.

When asked about Butler on Tuesday's conference calls, both Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia struck tones that were strikingly different than the ones that made headlines when discussing Butler the week prior.

"Yeah, I think Malcolm did a good job," Belichick said. "I mean, all of our defensive backs I thought were pretty competitive. We had some scramble yardage and loose plays and things like that. But I mean, the normal passing game we were pretty competitive on. But like anything else, there are certainly a lot of things we can do better."

That goes for Butler, too, who admitted last week that he hadn't been playing up to his standards.

On one of those scramble-drill plays Belichick referenced, Deshaun Watson found tight end Ryan Griffin for a 35-yard gain, which included several yards after the catch when Butler was among the defenders who missed the chance to try to wrestle Griffin to the ground.

There were occasions though -- like Watson's first-quarter third-down scramble that Butler helped to stop, forcing the Texans to kick a field goal -- when Butler's want-to was evident.

"I thought Malcolm played really well," Patricia said. "We certainly didn’t play great at all as a defense. I’m not saying that but I think the guy really tried to go out and play extremely hard. 

"This is a very competitive guy. Malcolm steps up to the challenges that you place in front of him. He goes out and competes, he works hard, he tries to do it the right way and he really tries to get better every week. 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."

A week ago, when asked about Butler's performance, Belichick and Patricia weren't quite as glowing.

"I don’t think anybody’s performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be," Belichick said at the time. "We all need to do a better job."

"I think with Malcolm, he’s kind of in a boat with everybody else," Patricia said. "We’re trying to get better."

Part of the reason Butler may have been relied upon as much as he was could have been due to the fact that fellow corner Eric Rowe -- who started in Week 2 opposite Stephon Gilmore -- was inactive with a groin injury. 

How Butler will factor in against the Panthers in Week 4 remains to be seen, but if his work against the Texans improved his confidence, then that would seem to benefit the Patriots defense as a whole. 

"Things that we're confident in," Belichick said, "we do more aggressively, we do quicker, we do with probably better overall execution than things we're not confident in . . . 

"It’s a fine line there between confidence and overconfidence and taking it for granted, as opposed to just being right in that sweet spot of having an edge, having confidence, being alert and aggressive."