Curran: Green-Ellis' milestone a credit to his team

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Curran: Green-Ellis' milestone a credit to his team

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO On Sunday, BenJarvus Green-Ellis became the 11th Patriot to run for more than 1,000 yards.

Now, lets play "one of these things is not like the others."

Antowain Smith, Robert Edwards, Leonard Russell, John Stephens and Sam Cunningham were first-round NFL picks. Jim Nance and Craig James were first-rounders in the AFL and USFL, respectively. Tony Collins and Corey Dillon were second-rounders. And Curtis Martin was a third-rounder.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis? Wasn't even drafted. And while 1,000 rushing yards isn't what it was when Cunningham was doing it in a 14-game season it's just 62.5 yards per game, for cry-eye Green-Ellis hitting that milestone was striking a blow for the legions of overlooked and underloved players that have made the Patriots great in the past and this year as well.

By the time he got to the podium after the game, Bill Belichick's poker face was perfectly in place and he said stoically that he cared not a bit for individual records set in Sunday's 38-7 beatdown.

He lied.

Green-Ellis needed 72 yards to get to 1,000. He carried 20 times for 80 yards including 11 times on 15 plays in the third and fourth quarters until on a fourth-and-16 he picked up the yardage necessary.

When he headed to the bench, he veered off and sought out Belichick. There was no chest bump or long, drawn out embrace. There was a handshake. A quick hug. And then Green-Ellis met a cavalcade of well-wishers on the bench.

Again, it must be said that 1,000 yards would be a hugely disappointing season for guys who live in the "elite back" category. The guys who don't just get drafted, but go in the first round. It's the road Green-Ellis traveled a road teammates like Kyle Arrington, Rob Ninkovich, Dane Fletcher, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Eric Moore, Dan Koppen, Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker and Tom Brady know well that makes them so proud of him. And makes him want to share it with them.

"It's not really an individual accomplishment," said Green-Ellis. "For one person to say that they got 1,000 yards by themselves, they would be lying to you."

Green-Ellis is talking about the linemen, tight ends and wideouts who do the blocking. And the coaches who design the plays and the quarterback whose arm must be respected. And he's talking, no doubt, about the counsel he gets from teammates.

Like Fred Taylor, who's run for 1,000 or more yards seven times in his terrific career. During training camp, when I asked him about the limited role of Laurence Maroney, Taylor specifically said to "watch out for BenJarvus Green-Ellis." He's been a mentor to Green-Ellis but he refused a large share of credit Sunday.

"I don't want to take away his shine," said Taylor. "He works as hard as anyone without me grabbing him and saying, 'Hey, let's do this.' He's my motivation. The truth of it is, we have our days where we just don't feel like it. You roll out of bed and you're like, 'Aww, man.' But when I think of him, he's grabbing me to do extra abs or an extra set in the weight room or extra sprints. We kind of vibe off each other. But he works his ass off. He's been patiently waiting and he just wants it."

For the Patriots to go 14-2 this year, a lot of guys whod been patiently waiting needed to elevate their play. A lot of retreads and never-wasses. Green-Ellis' accomplishment was a concrete number, the 1,000-yard carry a moment to celebrate. But that's only because you cant celebrate the mere presence of a guy like Moore, a pass rusher who was in the UFL a month ago.

"You got to tip your hat to the coach for that," Taylor said when discussing the kind of unheralded players New England's made use of this year. "He sees something in these players other people don't see. Look at Eric Moore. He just came from the UFL. You should have seen the picture of the lockers from their championship game. That's humbling.

"These guys get here and buy into what's going on around here and the leaders take hold of them, then they're ready to go," said Taylor. "These are memories running backs coach Ivan Fears was talking about Saturday night. Benny'll never forget it. I had to remind him, make sure you keep your gloves and everything else . . . These memories are priceless."

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."