Mike Giardi

Giardi: Listen to Belichick and it’s clear, Malcolm Butler is on notice

Giardi: Listen to Belichick and it’s clear, Malcolm Butler is on notice

Malcolm Butler is on notice. Plain and simple. Improve your play, improve your attitude, improve your focus or else…

Forget about the idea that Butler was not as prominent a part of the game plan Sunday in New Orleans because of bigger receivers and the matchup issues that can cause for a 5-foot-10 corner. Nope. That’s not what happened. Butler began the game on the pine because the Patriots believe he’s not given them his best in 2017, and that right now, Eric Rowe is better than Butler.

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“Well, look, we’re into a new season, so I don’t think anybody’s performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday when I asked him directly about Butler’s performance this season. “We all need to do a better job – players, coaches – all of us across the board. Hopefully, we’ll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That’s why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully, we’ll all be able to improve.”

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was clearly listening to his head coach speak prior to his turn in Tuesday’s conference calls, highlighting the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality that Belichick emphasized.

“It's all about this year,” he said. “I think what things have gone down in the past doesn't really matter to us. We're trying to get better for this year. The guys that are out there and in positions right now currently and help us win that particular week.”

So Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler is not here right now. Nor is the player the Pats believed in so much that they were willing to let that season’s No. 1 corner, Darrelle Revis, walk and not replace him in 2015. Apparently, there’s no sign of the Malcolm Butler they negotiated a contract extension with last year that came close to completion. Nope. That player, one they leaned on so heavily that he rarely came off the field - he played 98.8 percent of the snaps in ’15 , 96.7 in ’16 - saw part-time duty in the victory over the Saints on Sunday, and his play count might have been significantly lower if not for Rowe leaving the game in the third quarter with a groin injury. 

Belichick often talks about how the organization views players: ascending, descending, stagnant. Just a couple of weeks ago that topic came up with regard to Jimmy Garoppolo, who the team views as still on the rise despite rare playing time. You can also be descending or stagnant and still be a player worth working with. Butler is falling into one of those two categories now, while Rowe is someone seen as a riser.

“Well, you know, Eric was in a tough situation last year,” said Belichick. “He came in during the season, didn’t have the benefit of training camp, the foundation of the systems, a lot of catching up on the way, which I thought he did a real good job of and he helped us a lot. But this year it’s been much better for him to be able to be here from the beginning with a year of experience behind him. [He has a] much better understanding of what he’s doing, what our opponents are doing. Some of the techniques and so forth that we use are a little different than what they had in Philadelphia. He’s definitely gaining with the experience that he’s received and earned.”

Earned. That word showed itself again when Patricia spoke.

“Certainly with Eric Rowe involved, having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint, I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field and whatever that is depending on how the game is going kind of just plays itself out when we're in the particular situation.”

There were some rumblings about Butler’s contract situation impacting behind the scenes a year ago but it didn’t appear to hurt his play. Then, despite an offseason of anger and disappointment and finally realization that the big contract wasn’t coming from the Patriots, Butler, 27,  the showed up for voluntary workouts and seemed hellbent on proving his value again, while reminding all he was still the Alpha Dog at corner, not the freshly minted Stephon Gilmore. 

Somewhere this summer - the Texans’ joint practice week likely the beginning - Butler lost that edge in Belichick’s mind. Now, it’s entirely on the free agent-to-be to get that back, or he’ll be looking at more days like Sunday and a decreasing payday once he hits the market. There’s also the memory of Jamie Collins still fresh in everyone’s mind. At this point, any and all options are on the table. The proof is in the past.

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Hogan on slot receiver role: 'I have to see what Tom sees'

Hogan on slot receiver role: 'I have to see what Tom sees'

NEW ORLEANS - No Patriots player spent more time operating out of the slot than Chris Hogan in the season-opening loss to Kansas City. Of Hogan’s 73 snaps, 29 came out of that coveted spot in the offense, yet the production was virtually nonexistent. 

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Hogan caught one pass for a measly eight yards. Contrast that with Danny Amendola, who couldn’t make it through the third quarter. The ultra-quick Amendola ended up with four catches on five targets working out of the slot. So much for Hogan making up for Julian Edelman’s absence, at least for one week.

I asked Hogan about the difference between lining up in the slot as a primary target versus last season, when the Bills castoff spent a fraction of that time functioning in that role. 

“I’m comfortable there, for sure, and confident there as well,” he told me. “The biggest difference for me is some of the reads you have to make at the line of scrimmage and once you release. I have to see what Tom [Brady] sees.”

That’s a critical piece for any offensive player in this system: thinking and see what Brady does, or else...

“Tom demands a lot. He’s our leader,” said Hogan, quickly adding, “but I expect as much out of myself as anyone else could. I know I have to be better. If I’m better, it helps everyone.”

Hogan was like the rest of his teammates, disappointed with the way the opener went. He was also not willing to offer excuses, even when I offered one up, saying the offense did put up 27 points through three quarters.

“It wasn’t good enough,” he said matter-of-factly. “We believe we are better than that and believe we will play better than that. But it does no good to talk about it. We just have to do it.”

Bill Belichick wouldn’t offer much on Hogan’s work in the opener, but it would be surprising to see the Pats turn away from that so quickly. Besides, a few members of the offense indicated some surprise at Chiefs corner Marcus Peters drawing Hogan so much. This Sunday’s opponent, the Saints, don’t have a player of Peters' pedigree. Not yet at least.

“We all have a lot of work to do after the first game,” said Belichick, seemingly speaking for all facets of his team’s play, not the slot position in particular. “So, I don’t think any of us are where we want to be or need to be.”

Based on the way the Saints played defense in their opener, there’s a real opportunity for the Pats' offense to improve its efficiency and - in turn - its effectiveness. Expect Hogan to play a big part in that. 


 

Patriots' defensive plan this week: Keep everyone on point

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Patriots' defensive plan this week: Keep everyone on point

FOXBORO -- Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, have at the first Bag of the 2017 season . . .

Excellent question, Swirls. Thought about this one quite a bit. The bad ones always jump out. The good ones? There are plenty, but what sticks out? This is an old school one. Goes back to me covering Boston College basketball when they were relevant. Uka Agbai. Great kid and he started making fun of the amount of gel I had in my hair. That was funny. Sebastian Vollmer was another. He’s a massive human. Started the interview off by noting that I hadn’t grown between that season and the one prior. Devin McCourty was another when he started making fun of Tom Curran’s wardrobe. Fish in a barrel, I know, but amusing nonetheless. As for more serious content, I’ve found Matt Patricia to be outstanding at each of the last two Super Bowls. Gone in there thinking I’ll ask a couple questions and the next thing you know, 10 minutes have passed. Ditto with Dante Scarnecchia. The amount of football he knows . . . 

Hello Q! 

We had a great talk with Jerod Mayo about this on the pod this week. First part, the Patriots defense will never be anything but complicated. They don't run one scheme, they change to suit the opponent. Last week, with speed everywhere -- including tight end -- the Patriots were in five- and six-DB sets most of the night to avoid mismatches on slower linebackers like Elandon Roberts and David Harris. A rocked-up safety like Richards is the antidote. And he didn't play terribly. But the newness of players in a complex system caused the breakdowns you saw. Everyone's not yet seeing the same thing after the snap and -- with a team like KC or the Saints -- they have the coach/quarterback combo to put the Pats in a position to need to talk and process things and hope for a breakdown. The Tyreek Hill TD was a plain example of that. Mayo said that D.C. Matt Patricia will have to figure a way to trim the fat from the game plan this week so everybody's on point. 

Hey, Chris. Kyle Van Noy was actually the linebacker with the play-calling responsibilities in Week 1. I'd expect him to continue to take on that role if Hightower misses time. Where the Patriots would miss Hightower would be as a sounding board for Van Noy. The former Lions linebacker is still relatively new to the Patriots defense, and he's been very open about how he still leans on Hightower for help whenever he has a question. The defensive communication looked like it had wrinkles to iron out last week against the Chiefs, but I'd expect those to get better with time. If the Patriots believe they need someone else to relay the signals from Matt Patricia, Devin McCourty is someone who's handled that job in the past. David Harris did it for years with the Jets, but he wasn't on the field nearly enough in Week 1 (two snaps) to make much of an impact as a communicator. Perhaps against a different offensive scheme, Harris will play more and be given more responsibilities as the defense's traffic cop.  

I’d prefer him in the middle, too. And I was one of those people who was saying that before the Rob Ninkovich retirement and Kony Ealy flameout. I know Bill Belichick loves his versatility and it certainly makes it more difficult to read the defense when Hightower is moving around as opposed to being static in the middle, but I think that versatility might weaken the Pats defense early, not help it. Kyle Van Noy was so reliant on Hightower during the course of the Chiefs game that when Hightower went down, it’s no wonder things got hectic on that side of the ball. This also leads back to the decision they made to sign David Harris. He is a duplicate for Elandon Roberts. He’s also not a three-down linebacker. Feel like the Pats are chewing up a roster spot there. Be surprised if that remains the case.

No excuses!! Except for that personnel thing the Chiefs were doing. Harry, your head would have popped off your shoulders if Harris was chasing Tyreek Hill or Kareem Hunt around. I do expect much more Harris this week, especially when Adrian Peterson is in the game. He's not a pass-catching threat like their other backs and the Saints -- who vowed during the offseason to be more stubborn about establishing a ground game -- figure to feature AP for a dozen or so carries. 

Miguel! The Patriots have had all kinds of back-end-of-the-roster types scooped up by other clubs since final training-camp cuts. Four players were claimed on waivers -- Kenny Moore (Colts), James O'Shaughnessy (Jaguars), Austin Carr (Saints) and Conor McDermott (Bills) -- and DJ Foster was signed off the p-squad and on to the Cardinals active roster this week. Clearly teams think pretty highly of certain players who have been discarded by the Patriots but spent some time in their system. One name I could see potentially being signed off the practice squad is a relatively new addition: offensive lineman Willie Beavers. He was a fourth-round pick a year ago, he has good size (6-foot-5, 322 pounds), and there is an absolute dearth of NFL quality linemen across the league. If someone gets desperate, they could be interested in the Beav. When it comes to p-squadders the Patriots may like, I'm looking at the teams they practiced with this summer. Houston's Riley McCarron (5-9, 185) is a slot receiver with some Patriots ties as he played at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz. Jacksonville practice squad end Hunter Dimick is someone who was incredibly productive in college at Utah (83 quarterback pressures), who had two hurries in the preseason opener at Gillette Stadium. The Jags also have former Patriots defensive tackle Darius Kilgo on their practice squad. 

Q, it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was. Twenty-seven points should win you most every game you play this year. Also, let’s not forget the two fourth-and-1 stops. They should have scored 40-plus. Should have, could have, would have . . . I know. Part of what happened fell on Tom Brady. He had checkdowns and some underneath stuff but lost his patience. If the Saints drop eight, he’ll need to utilize the short stuff more. That’s one of my biggest complaints about what transpired two Thursdays ago. Of course, the other is how they ran Danny Amendola into the ground and -- predictably -- into an injury. How many times have we talked about the need to manage his snaps? How many times did the Pats do just that? But on the opener, they exposed him and now they might have to play without him this weekend. Smooth.

Sup, A-bomb. Don't think it would be all that difficult for Cooks to pick up the concepts of another receiver spot in the Patriots offense. He's an intelligent player who has worked diligently to pick up the offense. The only barrier to him moving into more of a slot role, for instance, would be his physical skill set. He's very quick and has the ability to uncover in short spaces, but he's not much of a yards-after-contact type. His value on the outside will probably always trump whatever he would give the Patriots on the interior. 

Pete! My man! Assuming you and yours survived Irma. Nasty stuff. I think Chris Hogan will get another crack at it this week. He ended up with the most snaps out of the slot in Week 1 (29, as opposed to Amendola’s 15). It feels like they’re committed to that front. Get the sense the Pats didn’t anticipate Marcus Peters traveling with Hogan as much as he in the opener. The Saints don’t have a Marcus Peters -- at least not yet. (Rookie Marshon Lattimore may eventually be that guy.) So what I’m saying is, give Hogan another chance. As for the backs, I think the Pats have no choice but to utilize them more Sunday. They’re going in with three healthy receivers and oh, by the way, Hogan was limping after Thursday’s practice and had a compression sleeve on one of his legs (it’s been that kind of year so far). More two back sets, more unique deployments of those backs and more touches in general for all three -- White, Lewis and Burkhead -- is something offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be wise to call upon.

Handing this one off to Tom . . .

Not close Rusty. It's Woofah Goofah and the boys. Now I'm gonna go fire up with Rage in the Cage.