Best & Worst: Lions 34, Patriots 10


Best & Worst: Lions 34, Patriots 10

By Mary Paoletti Staff Reporter Follow @mary_paoletti
Stephen Gostkowski finally took a kickoff for the Patriots, the first since Week 9 of 2010. Though New England's No. 1 saw action against the Jaguars, having Gostkowski back for the big boots is a welcome development. Unfortunately, the kickoff was another anticlimactic touchback, as they've all been this season.

Listen, it's the third game of the preseason so everybody knows the starters are going to play more. This also means everybody's extra freaked out about players getting hurt. No doubt, some pulses raced in New England when Cliff Avril got his hands on Tom Brady. But Avril came at the QB from behind and got a hand on the ball to force an incomplete. It was a preferable outcome to shattering Brady's arm into pixie dust.

The first quarter was the Matthew StaffordNate Burleson variety show. On Detroit's first drive Burleson burned Devin McCourty off the line and gained 37 yards on third down. Three plays later Burleson beat McCourty into the end zone. He bobbled the ball and McCourty broke up the pass for an incomplete. But the pair made up for it on the next drive with Burleson besting Kyle Arrington to catch a 9-yard laser from Stafford. Touchdoooown.

If you're going to get one, might as well be after a touchdown. The Lions went up 17-3 in the second quarter when Stafford capped a four play drive with a touchdown pass to Tony Scheffler. It's understandable that Detroit would be excited to go up on the Pats, but Scheffler's end zone dance was awful. It was like drunk Riverdancing. The penalty came when at least one of his teammates joined the celebration. That's not allowed.

The Lions are in the NFC North. With the way Detroit's defensive line ripped up New England's offense (Brady: two sacks, seven passes hurried by the half), the Pats should be happy this meeting is it for the year. There aren't too many other D-lines that should give them THIS much trouble.

First axe falls on the roster in just three days. The Patriots will probably keep six receivers and Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman are likely safe if so, but the margin for error is small. Tate in the first 40 minutes: 2 kick returns, 27 yards. Edelman: one kickoff return for 32 yards and two punt returns for 34 total yards. Nick Caserio has said over and over, "they more players can do, the better." As far as special teams looked? Edelman was much better.

Cornerback Jonathan Wilhite was laid out after a hard hit in the third quarter. Then things got worse. While Wilhite was tended to, word came out Wes Welker left the game with a neck injury. How'd that happen? Welker made a great open-field tackle after Brady was intercepted. Preseason injury? Yup. Avoidable preseason injury? Super.

Patriots corner Darius Butler was in the back of the end zone when Drew Stanton was looking for Nate Hughes. The ball popped up and Kyle Arrington had the wherewithal to snag it. New England didn't score on their next drive, but... Oh, well.

Up 34-10, Detroit put in its fourth quarterback before New England tried a third. Zac Robinson was No. 4. Zac Robinson! Saw time with the Patriots last season! The Lions had three QB's throw touchdowns in the game. Would Robinson? Probably.

Remember how Belichick and the boys watched The Fighter last week? The team met the real fighter, Mickey Ward, and screened the movie to "relax a bit," said Belichick. They even enjoyed some candy. "Put me down for the Junior Mints." After Saturday's loss, I'd assume any upcoming movie nights for the Patriots will be cancelled.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

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 . . . 


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. 


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."


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."