After listening to Tom Curran wonder if Malcolm Butler is on his way out of town, Devin McCourty says everyone should chill with the speculation.
FOXBORO -- It's a tall task for Devin McCourty and the Patriots defense: Bounce back from a letdown performance in the season-opener by going on the road and slowing down one of the best quarterbacks of this generation.
And oh, by the way, that quarterback? Drew Brees? He's 38 years old, in his 17th season, and has stared down just about every defensive scheme in the league at one point or another.
"It's like what we see on the regular with Tom [Brady]," McCourty said this week. "You can't fool him. We're not going to go out there Sunday and run some defense Drew Brees has never seen before. But we gotta try to make it tough and not just align and make everything easy for him to read.
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"We know he's a quarterback that loves being able to read coverages. He knows as soon as he sees the coverage where he wants to go with the football. It's going to be about competing in individual one-on-one matchups. Obviously, it's going to be about trying to get to him in the rush and not allowing him to sit back there. But it's tough."
Helping the Patriots is that Brees and the Saints aren't exactly coming home riding a wave of momentum. They scored 19 points during their loss Monday in Minnesota. They were 4-for-11 on third down, they converted on just one of five red zone trips . . . and they've had just six days to lick their wounds while the Patriots haven't played since Sept. 7. Additionally, Brees is working without one of his favorite targets, Willie Snead, who is serving a three-game suspension to start the season.
But Brees still has plenty of weapons. Michael Thomas, a second-year receiver out of Ohio State, has drawn Marques Colston comparisons from some in the Patriots locker room this week. Ted Ginn is 32 but still a big-play threat. And coming off of a down year, Coby Fleener is already showing signs of resurgence in his second season with New Orleans, catching five passes for 54 yards and a score in Week 1.
If Brees understands exactly what the Patriots defense is doing on a snap-to-snap basis, those targets pose more of a threat than their collective skill sets would warrant in a vacuum. So what can the Patriots do to confuse a quarterback who's seen it all? And what's realistic when the Patriots have players who are still getting accustomed to the defense who could be playing significant roles?
The key might be to roll with a handful of coverages while dressing them up to make them look more complicated than they are. That could mean playing the same schemes with different personnel. Or maybe they'll be busy showing one look before the snap and drop into another before Brees has time to react.
Asked about disguising things without getting too fancy, McCourty remembered a favorite saying of his college coach Greg Schiano.
"Coach Schiano used to always say 'Simple me, complex them,' " McCourty said. "I think the good thing for us is [Matt Patricia] is always going to come up with stuff that is something we do. It's natural to what we do as a defense, but it might be hard for them. How exactly you do it, I don't know, but you have to find that balance.
"That's every week. Doing things that's hard for the offense to deal with, but also stuff that's not crazy for you that you struggle to do and it's just a big mess. That's always the battle of the coaches coming up with stuff, and us doing it during the practice week so when you get to the end of the week, 'Does this work? Does this not work? Do we need to do it?' That's always great dialogue between us and the coaches trying to figure all that out."
McCourty acknowledged that regardless of the coverages the Patriots run out there in New Orleans, the communication between all three layers of the defense will need to be better than it was against Kansas City. There were plays in the opener when conversations were being had right up until the moment the ball was snapped with signal-caller Kyle Van Noy trying to relay as much information to his teammates as possible from his spot in the middle of the field.
Even without linebacker Dont'a Hightower (ruled out with a knee injury) the Patriots will have to find a way to avoid similar pitfalls if they hope to keep Brees under wraps.
"I just think going off of last week, we have to do more," McCourty said. "Not just myself, but as a whole, to make sure we're all on the same page on every play. That we're aligned right, that we're playing the right techniques.
"If we don't have those things -- the small fundamentals and small details of the play -- we can't have a good defensive play. I think we have to really harp on that . . . just making sure we have all those things right before the play starts so that we give ourselves a chance.
"There were times last week where we didn't give ourselves a chance to have a good play. That doesn't come from Kyle with the green dot, or myself, or Duron [Harmon] in the middle of the field as the signal-caller for the safeties. It's all 11 guys on the field being on the same page, doing it the right way."
FOXBORO -- Here are five quick-hit observations from Thursday night's NFL season-opener.
1. The Patriots gave up a pair of uncharacteristic long scores that changed the complextion of the game. The first came with 9:19 remaining in the third quarter when Alex Smith found Tyreek Hill for a 75-yard score when Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty had a communication breakdown in the secondary. Then the Chiefs got running back Kareem Hunt matched up on Cassius Marsh and hit him for a 78-yard score deep down the middle of the field. Down eight points with about four minutes left, the Patriots gave up a 58-yard run and a 21-yard touchdown run to Charcandrick West on back-to-back plays. The Patriots have long prided themselves on limiting big plays -- "bend but don't break" is how they're often described beyond the Gillette Stadium walls -- but they were unable to do that in the opener and it did them in.
CHIEFS 42, PATRIOTS 27
2. The absence of Julian Edelman made an immediate impact. The Chiefs seemed to do most of their damage defensively with a four-man rush, meaning they dropped seven into coverage to run with five eligible Patriots receivers. While there were mismatches to be had at times -- Patriots backs on Chiefs linebackers, for instance -- Tom Brady and his teammates weren't able to take advantage. Having someone who can quickly uncover like Edelman might have helped to diffuse the Kansas City pass-rush. Instead, low-percentage throws down the field -- away from where the Chiefs had a numbers advantage -- were the norm. Didn't work out.
3. Danny Amendola was worn out quickly. Without Edelman, the Patriots relied on Amendola in the slot. They've done a good job in recent years of managing Amendola's snaps to maintain his health. But with just four receivers -- including newcomer Phillip Dorsett -- available to them, the Patriots had to rely on Amendola. And Brady targeted him often. He had six catches for 100 yards and was targeted seven times. He also returned three punts -- two of which were called back -- adding to his hits-absorbed total. He eventually left the game with a head injury and was ruled out. Chris Hogan, who many expected to see an increased workload with Edelman injured, was targeted five times and caught one pass for eight yards. His first catch came with 12:56 remaining in the third quarter.
4. Dont'a Hightower went down, leaving the Patriots even thinner at linebacker. When Dont'a Hightower suffered a knee injury in the third quarter, it looked serious. Chiefs lineman Mitch Morse (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) fell on the outside of Hightower's right leg. The linebacker and captain eventually walked off the field under his own power and was examined by Patriots medical personnel. He later did work on a stationary bike but did not return to the game. In his place, the Patriots used Cassius Marsh on the edge and relied on Kyle Van Noy as one of their primary off-the-ball 'backers. The team used Jordan Richards as an edge defender for much of the game, as they worked with dime personnel for long stretches. David Harris, whose strength is not in coverage, barely factored into the game plan. Should Hightower be forced to miss any length of time, one of the most shallow positions on the roster would suddenly be without its best player.
5. Mike Gillislee ended up one of the lone bright spots for the Patriots. His three touchdown runs gave him the first three-score performance for a running back in a Patriots opener. After having missed much of training camp with a hamstring injury, he was the go-to option as the "big back." Despite his big night, he (and the Patriots offensive line) failed on two fourth-down runs, which surely will be highlighted by the Patriots staff when they review the film.