Opportunity knocks

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Opportunity knocks

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

The NBA season is a little more than two weeks old. The NHL's barely been at it for a month. The NFL just passed its halfway point.

At this stage in the game, all three leagues need binoculars to see the finish line. Yet this week, three Boston teams can make a statement to help propel themselves towards the checkered flag.

Wednesday, November 10: Bruins at Penguins

Thursday, November 11: Celtics at Heat

Sunday, November 14: Patriots at Steelers

It's a five-day stretch that starts Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, and ends Sunday night in Pittsburgh; just for fun, there's a trip down to Miami sandwiched in between. It features villains like Cooke, LeBron and Harrison. Rivalries (both budding and established) like Crosby vs. Seguin, Big Three vs. Big Three and Ben vs. Brady. It includes six teams that will very likely still be playing when it matters; who will probably meet again when the stakes are at their highest. So for that reason, maybe we can't get too carried away with the results.

And we won't.

If the Bruins, Celtics or Patriots lose the next time they take the respective ice, court or field, no one will write them off. No one will ever say, "Ah, they can't beat the Steelers on the road in November, the Pats are screwed!" This isn't do-or-die.

Instead, it's an opportunity.

Tonight in Pittsburgh, the Bruins have an opportunity to take care of some unfinished business, and will take the ice with two objectives:

1. Win.

2. Ensure that Matt Cooke wakes up tomorrow morning feeling like he was run over by a Zamboni.

The first objective needs no explanation. Neither does the fact that without No. 1, No. 2 loses a lot of flavor. But Objective No. 2 is what makes this game so crucial. Up to this point, the B's have done a great job of distancing themselves from last year's history-making mess. They already look like a tougher, more potent and inspired team. But there are still a few demons floating around the locker room, and the stench of Matt Cooke might be the most menacing.

It's now been seven months since Cooke's cheap shot on Marc Savard, and Savvy's career has been drastically altered. His life's been drastically altered.

Take a second and think about how long ago March feels all that's happened since then and now consider that Savard's been living a nightmare everyday of that.

Now imagine you're one of the teammates who failed so miserably in gaining retribution. That must be awful.

Tonight's game not only provides the Bruins a chance to make good on last March's disaster, but also a chance to prove they're officially not that team from last March anymore; that they're willing and able to fight for what's important and still come out on top.

On Thursday night in Miami, the Celtics have an opportunity to gain a serious mental edge on the biggest threat to their Eastern Conference crown.

Sure, the Heat have played better since Opening Night, but still, they're about as emotionally stable as a PMS-ing supermodel. For every step forward, at least in the eyes of the national media, they take seven steps back, and it's got to be wearing on them. Erik Spoelstra can't open the Internet without reading about the eventual Pat Riley takeover. Chris Bosh can't check his Twitter feed without nearly 290K followers telling him he's a fraud. LeBron James can't gaze into the mirror and ask, "What should I do?" without the mirror yelling back, "How about taking over in crunch time of a big game, fool!?!"

I'm not saying the Heat are teetering on any brink of destruction. But if Boston can go into Miami's gym, in the midst of a four-game road trip, without an entirely healthy roster, and win? This game will stick with the Heat for a while.

After Thursday, there are three months before the Heat and Celtics play again, and that's back here at the Garden. If Miami loses tomorrow, then no matter what they accomplish between now and that next meeting, all they'll hear is, "But you can't beat Boston! You can't beat the reaaaaal Big Three!"

And for a team that's already under constant scrutiny, already has the weight of the NBA world on its shoulders, and already boasts a highly flammable arsenal of egos, who knows where that might lead?

I don't, but wouldn't it be fun to find out?

And lastly, on Sunday night, the Patriots have an opportunity to erase that loss to Cleveland.

OK, they can't erase it. We're not talking Men in Black here. But how about Back to the Future?

Maybe the Pats can't remove that game from history, but can't they alter its place?

Right now, the loss to the Browns is a warning sign, a red flag, perhaps the game that exposed all their weaknesses.

With a victory over the Steelers, the loss to the Browns becomes an aberration, a much needed wake-up call, the game that got the Pats back on track!

A loss will be, well, a loss. The specifics will go a long way towards deciding how seriously we take it. But there are very few harder places to win than Heinz Field, especially in prime time. Truthfully, a loss is probably expected.

In fact, the Bruins, Celtics and Patriots will all be underdogs the next time they take the respective ice, court and field. So that's why if they do lose, we won't freak out.

But if one, two or all three can step up and seize the opportunity before them, we'll have reason to remain optimistic, and maybe even increase our expectation, regardless of how far away the finish line might seem.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

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."