Sanders bails out Patriots' defense

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Sanders bails out Patriots' defense

By Danny Picard
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- If the New England Patriots' defense wanted to make astatement to its doubters, it was going to have to come on Sunday night, duringthe Indianapolis Colts' final drive of the game.

Peyton Manning had already taken his team into the end zone twice in the fourth quarter, cutting New Englands 31-14 lead to 31-28. After the Colts' 'D' had forced the Patriots to punt, Manning had 2 minutes and 25 seconds to drive 74yards for the win at Gillette Stadium.

Manning took his offense down to the New England 24-yardline after connecting with Reggie Wayne for a 15-yard pass on 3rd-and-6. Withless than a minute remaining, the Colts had a first down, and were perfectlyset up in field-goal range.

But on that first down play, Manning set up his no-huddleoffense while in the shotgun formation, looked his tight end off, and attempteda pass down the right sideline for Pierre Garcon.

There would be no game-tying field goal from former PatriotAdam Vinatieri, and there would be no game-winning touchdown for Manning atGillette.

Credit that to safety James Sanders, who leaped out ofnowhere and picked off Manning's pass at New England's 6-yard line, giving thePatriots the ball with 31 seconds left and sealing the deal on a three-pointwin.

"As a defense, we knew if we didnt make a play, we weregoing to lose the game," said Sanders. "Manning wasn't going to just give itto us. So we had to go out there and take the win."

The Pats' defense held Manning and the Colts' offense tojust 14 points and picked him off twice through the first three quarters, whiledisguising their coverages.

But Manning came out in the fourth and threw two touchdownsin his first two possessions of the quarter.

Something had to be done on histhird possession. And Sanders was the one to step up and make it happen.

Sanders credited linebacker Gary Guyton for jamming Coltstight end Jacob Tamme at the line of scrimmage, prior to his interception.Sanders and Guyton were double-covering Tamme on the play, but because ofGuytons tight coverage, it allowed Sanders to read Manning a little longer.

Sanders saw Manning notice the double coverage, which causedthe Colts' quarterback to become wide-eyed at the single coverage on Garcondown the right sideline. He went for the big play with the game onthe line.

As the throw was made, Patriots linebacker JermaineCunningham was rushing in from the left side, and just got a piece of Manningsthrowing arm, disrupting his attempt.

From there Sanders dropped back, leaped up, and made theinterception while falling backwards to the ground. It was the only thing thePatriots could have done to guarantee victory.

"It feels good when the defense comes through and kind ofwins the game for you," said Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. "They were afield goal away from tying it up, a touchdown away from winning the game, butwe were forced to step up big and win it with a turnover. That was huge for us.I'm very proud of our guys out there.

"I think going into this week, the offense realized they hadto score points," said Wilfork. "And I think our defense, we realized, 'Hey,theres going to come a point where we're going to have to stand up andbasically be a man out there.' And we did. With a minute left in the ball game,whatever it was, James Sanders came up with that interception, that turnover.That felt good."

Cornerback Darius Butler got to see some second-half action after Patriots coach Bill Belichick made some halftime adjustments, moving cornerback Kyle Arrington mostly as an outside pass-rusher.

Belichick said after the win that the move was part of the game plan heading in.

"Yeah, yeah, we planned it," said Belichick. "We don't draw them up on the dirt now."

Arrington was beaten several times in the first half by Reggie Wayne, including on an 11-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline with four seconds remaining in the second quarter.

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"The coaches are very confident in my ability to rush thequarterback, or get to the quarterback," said Arrington.

But it was wasn't as easy as it looked.

"Tackles get paid to block, so it was very different," he added. "I had a few opportunities. I got close to Peyton a coupletimes, but in the trenches, its very different."

Danny Picard is on Twitter at http:twitter.comdannypicard

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."