Soft Pats 'D' can't follow Mayo's lead

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Soft Pats 'D' can't follow Mayo's lead

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

CLEVELAND -- Jerod Mayo was not happy Sunday night.

He sat in front of the locker the Browns had given him, neither changing nor packing, after New England's 34-14 loss to Cleveland. The captain seemed unready to move on.

Maybe he was trying to get his bearings.

"It was very disappointing,'' Mayo said of the loss. "We were coming in feeling pretty good about our run defense and Hillis just came out -- the offensive line came out -- and did a great job."

Mayo was talking about Peyton Hillis. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound running back had the game of his career, and it was all Cleveland needed. He dodged, hurdled and shrugged off tackles on his way to 184 yards. Hillis had as many carries (29) as the rest of the Browns rush and receiver corp had touches combined.

That's one player doing the work of 12. One guy the Patriots couldn't contain.

"He ran the ball hard today,'' Mayo said. "You really can't simulate the skill that of a bigger guy back there. But he did a great job today. Their offensive line did a good job, as well."

So you can understand Jerod Mayo's confusion. It has taken weeks -- that stretch back to 2009 -- for the Patriots to feel "pretty good" about their defense. But the strides have been made.

Third-down defense was a major concern entering Week 6's match up with Baltimore. The Patriots were holding down the NFL's cellar spot for efficiency, allowing opponents to convert 54.7 percent of the time. But the 'D' stood strong and gave the Patriots an opportunity to win by forcing the Ravens to punt on their final five possessions, three straight coming in overtime.

The next week saw another step forward. The Patriots forced four turnovers on San Diego's league-leading offense and stonewalled the run (38 yards).

And last weekend? Minnesota's 410 total yards of offense are deceptive. That three-headed monster of Brett Favre, Randy Moss, and Adrian Peterson only put 18 points on the board. Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety Brandon Meriweather held Moss to just one catch.

So what happened on Sunday? Why will rookie quarterback Colt McCoy be able to tell his grandkids that his breakout game (14-for-19, 174 yards) came against the Patriots? How could Hillis set a career-high for rush yards and score two touchdowns? Was it about those trick plays that Cleveland is so notorious for?

It's a start.

One bit of sneakiness came late in the second quarter when the Browns had a 10-7 lead. Cleveland lined up in its Wildcat formation with Josh Cribbs at quarterback. But Cribbs didn't run the ball. Instead, the Browns remixed the"fumblerooski" play. It confounded New England's defense, and resulted in an 11-yard touchdown from wideout Chansi Stuckey.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had a basic answer in the postgame.

"It was a new play, they hadn't run it this year. We had prepared for plays like that, but we obviously didn't prepare very well,'' he said. "It was a good play by them, not a good play by us, that's all it is."

Belichick's cut-and-dry analysis was similar to Mayo's. Those two, as did Arrington, all pointed to a lot of preparation that proved fruitless. It seemed that no matter how much mix-and-match the Pats did, no matter how much shuffling of defensive schemes they did, they just couldn't find an answer.

"We knew they were coming up with some stuff we hadn't seen. We haven't watched the film yet,'' Mayo laughed ruefully, "but hopefully when we watch the film we'll learn where the breakdowns were and we'll have to get better at it.''

Improvement shouldn't weigh heavy on the captain's shoulders, though. Mayo led all players with seven tackles and three assists. Belichick says Mayo's impressive tally has everything to do with the linebacker taking the opportunities given to him. Mayo is doing that: He has 17 more than the league's No. 2 tackler, Tennessee's Stephen Tulloch. So it's up to the other guys to get better.

The secondary in particular will have film study to do.

Setting the edge has been an issue that keeps cropping up for the Pats. It's what
Arrington called a "lack of awareness." It bit the Patriots again on one fourth-quarter drive when Hillis got the ball six straight times. Cleveland's O-line was suffocating on the final carry. Fullback Lawrence Vickers blocked Patriots' safety James Sanders brilliantly -- as he had all day -- and gave Hillis an open sideline. Thirty-five yards. Touchdown.

To see Mayo, the only guy able to break free, chasing Hillis in futility was a pathetic capsule of the day's defensive struggle. It is why he sat before his locker on Sunday night, unable to or unsure of where to file the effort away.

Eventually, he got up and got ready to go home.

"It's disappointing but if we can learn something from this, it was worth it,'' Mayo said.

Learning is what the Patriots defense has been doing all season and overall, they've taken more steps forward than back. With just one week until a trip to take on a tough Steelers team, they'd better hope that rebound rate stays high.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti.

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."