Pats have whirlwind schedule if July 21 deal done

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Pats have whirlwind schedule if July 21 deal done

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
If, as ESPN reported on Monday, the target date to get the new CBA ratified is July 21, that means the Patriots have just 21 days before they're on the field against the Jaguars in their preseason opener. That, obviously, could change. And probably will. But working off that assumption and the accompanying timeline for team construction that accompanied the report, let's look at what the Patriots will have to do by the approximate dates. JULY 21: Educate the clubs on the new league rules and allow voluntary training for teams and agents.The second portion of the sentence is most important. It allows veterans and rookies to report for what would probably be physicals, classwork, conditioning and logisitical work (living arrangements for rookies) in a mini-camp setting. If actual training camp opened, rookies would not be able to report without contracts. The "educate the clubs" aspect would be a seminar for personnel man Nick Caserio, contract guy Floyd Reese, overlord Bill Belichick and others to figure out the lay of the land business-wise. One has to figure Belichick has been kept abreast of things by Robert Kraft in terms of what he'll be looking at in regards to salary caps, rookie scales, etc. JULY 25: Sign undrafted rookies, as well as give free agents a chance to re-sign with their teams.Do the Patriots covet BC's Mark Herzlich, the Cam Newton of undrafted free agents? Will Matt Light be re-upped? (My guess is yes; he's been working out at Camp Mayo during the lockout.) Is Kevin Faulk coming back? This is when the window opens for the Patriots to make these moves. JULY 28: League year starts and free agency begins. The feeding frenzy begins. The 500 or so unrestricted free agents (my guess is it will be any player with four years of service and an expired contract) hit the market and the shopping that's been delayed nearly five months launches. Do the Patriots make a run at Matt Roth? Nnamdi Asomugha? Malcom Floyd? An outlier to be named? The action will be furious and -- because of the compressed schedule -- coast-to-coast tours will not be the norm. This will also be the period in which teams can try to pry restricted free agents from teams with offer sheets. Of course, with the preseason set to open for New England on August 11, will they be interested in diving deep into the pool of UFAs? Will they get bang for the buck from these players who have limited time to learn the system? The 2011 UFA class really gets screwed royally here. AUGUST 2: Rosters must be set at 90 players.The Patriots currently have 74 players under their control according to the estimable Miguel Benzan who does the Patriots salary cap page on Patsfans.com. That includes restricted free agents and Logan Mankins who's been franchised. When business reopens, some players are going to be thrown overboard (Nick Kaczur is a candidate with his estimated 4.3 million cap hit); others will be collected. AUGUST 3: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the team's highest-profile RFA. He could be the quarry for some team interested in bolstering their running game but it's hard to see much happening on this front whether it be coming or going. AUGUST 7: A four-day match period for teams to match restricted free-agent offer sheets.This is usually a 10-day window for teams to decide whether they want to ante up to keep a guy. If you consider that -- if the schedule holds -- the preseason opener is just four days away from this date you can see the practical difficulty of bringing a guy in to learn a program on the fly. AUGUST 12: Deadline for rookies to sign contracts (not yet agreed upon).The whole rookie wage scale thing is apparently the speed bump that can't be cleared in negotiations. For instance, if they don't sign by August 12, then what? What are the penalties? Either way, you have to figure the angular Coloradoan (Colorado-ite, Colorado-idian?) Nate Solder will be firmly ensconced in camp before then. Just a vibe I get. AUGUST 16: Signing period for restricted free agents ends, as does the signing period for franchise and transition tenders.This would be the deadline for Dr. Mankins, Dr. Logan Mankins to report to surgery. AUGUST 29: Deadline for players to report to earn credit for an accrued season toward free agency.This appears to be the no-holdout law that the owners are trying to push to prevent instances like what Mankins did last year, bailing on the early part of the season while irritated about being an RFA and then showing up in time to get credit for 2010. So there it is. All the dates you need to know and how the local entrant is affected. Odds of it all changing? One hundred percent. 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."