Bledsoe, Parcells prime candidates for Pats HOF

427017.jpg

Bledsoe, Parcells prime candidates for Pats HOF

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com
Who was more important to the New England Patriots, quarterback Drew Bledsoe or the man who drafted him, Bill Parcells? Is it the guy who wrote the script or the guy who read the lines? There's a good chance that this is the choice that will face Patriots fans when the 2011 Patriots Hall of Fame nominees are announced by the team on April 15. And it's up to you to make the ultimate votes. On Friday, a committee of media, staff and alumni met to discuss Patriots players who are eligible and deserving of Hall of Fame induction. This reporter ... no, no this one...no, right HERE. Ok, I was in the room. Our job was to hear the discussion then nominate three players in descending order. When the ballots are counted, the top three vote-getters will be announced to the public and the public will vote on the 2011 inductee. There's always a lot of discussion about players from different eras. Getting insight into guys I'd only watched play (as opposed to covering or not seeing at all) was a big part of the session. Asking guys like Andre Tippett or Steve Grogan or Ernie Adams to explain the merits of Raymond Clayborn vs. Leon Gray vs. Houston Antwine was an education. But now we're getting into the "modern" eraof the Patriots. The conversation now becomes even more fascinating because the "saving" of the franchise and the current "flourishment" somewhat trump the great players from the star-crossed seasons past. I've been a stalwart supporter of Leon Gray, the late Patriots' left tackle who was with the Patriots from 1973-'78. John Hannah played next to Gray and the two were one of the most potent guard-tackle combos in league history. Gray went to two Pro Bowls (1976 and '78) and was an All Pro ('78) while with the Patriots. But he was foolishly dealt to Houston in 1979 where he kept on being awesome. He's been on my nomination list before. So has Clayborn, Antwine and another old-timer Houston Antwine. But with Bledsoe and Parcells both coming up, all the other guys were fighting for that third nomination spot on my ballot. And to me, the first spot was kind of easy. Bledsoe. Even though the word "underachiever" appears on his Patriots' epitaph, From 1993 to 1998, he was the best young quarterback in the NFL. I remember writing in 1998 that there wasn't a quarterback in the league you'rd rather start a franchise with. The talent was there. The production was there. The wins, the playoff appearances and the toughness were there. But the combination of Parcells being a pain in his ass, Pete Carroll being too soft, Bledsoe not being a maniacal worker and an ever-changing parade of offensive coordinators and systems caused Bledsoe's development to flat-line. And then he got worse. Still, he was the franchise hood ornament, the most important player the franchise ever had until the third week of September, 2001 rolled around. Parcells? His impact on the franchise was nearly equal to Bledsoe's. On the day he was hired - four months before he drafted Bledsoe - nearly 1,000 season tickets were sold. In four seasons, Parcells made the Patriots compelling. He made them relevant. He ended their years of being a punch line. But he was here for half as long as Bledsoe. His divorce from the team was messy (a Twitter poll I threw out there on Friday had Bledsoe as the pick by a 4 to 1 count) and he was as reviled as he was beloved by the time he fled to the Jets. Bledsoe? At least outwardly, he never did anything to sully his "class act" image, though he oozed disdain for Belichick and a tolerant condescension toward Brady at times during that period from September through January. Last up? I went with Leon Gray, narrowly, over Raymond Clayborn. So I did my part. And so did the rest of the panel. Come April 15, you'll get the chance to finish the job. I'll keep you posted.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

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."