A season's worth of worries

197881.jpg

A season's worth of worries

By Michael Felger

Some of the biggest worries facing the Patriots this season to brighten your day (ranked in order):

Pass rush

Really had to dig deep for this one. Analysis like this is why they pay me the big bucks.

But it turns out that in this case, the glaringly obvious is also brutally true. If Bill Belichick can get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks with this group, it's time to dust off the genius label.

In my mind, if you have a good defense, Tully Banta-Cain is your first pass rusher off the sideline. He isn't your top outside linebacker on all three downs. But that's case for the 2010 Patriots. And it only gets worse from there. The next group of names is even scarier. Marques Murrell. Rob Ninkovich. Jermaine Cunningham. One of those guys is going to start opposite Banta-Cain. Yikes.

Defensive end is just as barren, where Mike Wright, like Banta-Cain, is more suited to sub duty and Gerard Warren (32 sacks in nine years) won't give you much burst. Ron Brace? Myron Pryor? Something tells me Michael Strahan isn't walking through that door.

Again, if Belichick can scheme it up and get quarterbacks off the spot through deception, then God bless. For now, it remains, by far, the biggest worry on this team.

Coverage

Another no-brainer. I've maintained for a while now that if this young secondary was playing behind a good pass rush, it might be good enough. That's "might." But with opposing quarterbacks figuring to have a good amount of time to throw, these guys could be toast. Darius Butler better have thick skin. Devin McCourty better have a short memory. And both better stay healthy, because Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite are next up. Double Yikes.

Yes, the safeties look promising. I just wish Brandon Meriweather was as good as he thought he was.

The Pats have allowed 52 touchdown passes the last two years. Only three teams have allowed more. That, suffice it to say, it not what you're looking for.

Setting the edge

You think the Pats' potential problems are only in the passing game? Au contraire.

Wright has been run on in the past. So has Banta-Cain. What Murrell, Cunningham or Ninkovich do on the other side is anyone's guess. The strength of the Pats' defense nose tackle Vince Wilfork playing in front of inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and, presumably, Brandon Spikes is confined and easy to identify. Why would any opponent run up the gut on the Pats? They're going to try and exploit the perimeter.

Pass protection

It looks like Tom Brady will have plenty of options in the passing game, with Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate and two promising rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, joining Wes Welker and Randy Moss. It seems the only thing that can get in the way is Brady spending too much time on his back.

The line looked fine in the preseason with Dan Connolly taking over at Logan Mankins' left guard spot. That's the good news. The bad news is that the real games are about to begin, and opponents surely won't treat Connolly as just another player going forward. They're going to go after him.

But whether it's Connolly or Mankins, fans should have a fair amount of confidence in Brady's ability to get rid of the ball. It's typically one of his strengths. He was sacked just 16 times last year, by far the fewest of his career.

A Randy Moss pity party

Moss' contract-year act has already begun. He's claimed the Pats don't pay. He's disrespected his owner at his most important charity event of the year. Now he's saying he feels "not wanted." Was this not the most predictable development in the league this year?

Historically, Moss has not been one to fight through adversity. It just gets worse. Never better. That's his track record, anyway. Maybe it will be different here. If not, Brady and the rest of the team have to be sure they don't get taken down with him. Hopefully, they realize the fact of the matter: They don't need him.

A few programming notes: Starting next week we'll be filing three stories a week, with a game column posting Sunday night, the award-winning report card coming your way Tuesdays and the mailbag remaining on Thursdays.

Also, in case you missed it last weekend, Sports Sunday has moved to 7:30 p.m., with a replay at 11. Set the DVR if you can't make one of those times.

E-mail Felger HERE. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

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."