Patriot Mind Games

197883.jpg

Patriot Mind Games

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

You know what happened at the Meadowlands Sunday.

The fact that you're even reading this means that you're one of the frustrated millions who sat through three anxiety-ridden hours of football, ran the gamut of NFL emotions and were left feeling empty, confused, or just plain pissed off over the actions of your New England Patriots.

And now you're caught in the early season NFL mind games.

We go through this every year with the Patriots. We live and die for every game. When they're winning they'll never lose again. When they're losing, all is lost. It a dangerous and ridiculous tradition, but we fall for it every season.

How can we not? Regardless of how many countless hours were spent previewing and predicting how the 2010 season would play out, by the end of Week 2 that's thrown out the window. At this point, we go on what we've seen, even if that is such a small sample size. We have no choice. We either form opinions on that sample or choose to not care as much. We can treat it like April baseball and say, "Eh, whatever, it's only September. Not a big deal." But thats impossible. It doesn't matter what month it is, there's too much craziness and fanfare around every NFL game (especially a Jets game) to not get a little crazy.

So, today, we're all a little crazy.

We're crazy over the fact that the Pats not only lost, and not only lost to the Jets, but lost to the most unlikable Jets team in a long line of unlikable Jets teams.

We're upset that the Pats choked the game away. Obviously, that's a relative term. This wasn't a Bruins choke, or a Buckner choke, and it definitely wasn't a Sprewell choke. But there's no way around the fact that the Patriots placed themselves in a position to win this game. Victory was within reach, and the Jets didn't take it; the Pats gave it to them. They let it slip away.

On top of all that is the fact that this loss came underneath an enormous microscope. It was the biggest game of the entire week. It's the one that the national media will talk about the most, the one that will haunt your SportsCenter and send you into temporary hiding from TV, radio and (well, I guess not entirely) the Internet.

That depression won't last forever, but the mind games will continue all week. We'll sit in the aftermath of this ugly Pats loss and wonder what they could have done differently, or why they didn't do anything differently. We'll criticize a secondary we spent an entire week celebrating. We'll wonder if Belichick's lost it after having just convinced ourselves that he'd recaptured the magic. We'll bring up all the storylines from last year and obsess over this team's inability to win on the road or make in-game adjustments. That's part of being a fan. That's just what we do.

But still, there's that nagging feeling that, for now, it's all in vain.

In a way, the NFL season's a lot like a season of 24.

In 24, for the first few episodes, all the plot lines feel so important. You know that there's still much left to unfold, but you can't help but get caught up in the moment. Everything is so dramatic. Everything means so much. Then 18 hours later you look back and think, "Hey, remember when that Russian guy held the airport hostage, killed three cops and then drove his car into a plane? What did that really have to do with anything?"

The NFL's the same way. Ten weeks from now, we'll look back and see a thinly-veiled connection between what happened on Sunday afternoon and the actual state of the league, but so much will have changed by then. The NFL world will be such a different place, and Sunday's game will mean far less. By then, Week 2 will be an afterthought, and all the assumptions that are currently bubbling in our brains will have been replaced by definitive answers.

By then, we'll know who the Patriots are, but for now all we can do is get caught in the mind games.

All we can do is wonder

What did this loss mean?

On one hand, it's impossible to feel optimistic. That second half was disgusting. It raised a lot of questions. It brought back a lot of insecurities. It gave us a lot to think about. But at the same time, why are we more confident in our instincts now than we were at this time last week? Isn't this the same team that we were crowning all the way up until kick-off (and well into the first quarter)? How could we be so wrong in our perception after Week 1, yet so sure we, or anyone, has it right this time around?

The answer is we can't.

What does Sunday's loss mean?

It just means that we still don't know who the Patriots are. We don't know if they'll go down to Miami and knock off the Dolphins two weeks from now, or if they'll drop a home game to the Bills this Sunday. We're stuck in limbo between their domination of the Bengals (who beat the Ravens on Sunday) or slopfest against the Jets (who lost to the Ravens last Monday). We're just trying to make sense of it all, and having a hell of a hard time doing it.

Or at least I am. The mind games are getting to me. It happens every year.

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."