We all saw it last Sunday – the Patriots secondary being repeatedly beaten off the line and consistently a step behind in the second half of the Dolphins game. It made the score much closer than it should have been. And Pats players and coaches have confirmed that it wasn’t schematic, it was just poor play by the secondary.
This level of play can be accepted from third-stringer Leonard Coleman, and even occasionally from starter Logan Ryan. But no one expected it from Super Bowl hero and #1 corner Malcolm Butler. So the question is, has Butler peaked, and is he coming back down to earth?
The short answer is that he might have fallen a bit, but only from our lofty opinions. Butler has developed a local reputation for being a shutdown corner, but he was never truly that. He doesn’t have the skills to shut down #1 receivers. But he does play his best in big games against those receivers.
A look at last year’s schedule, his first as a regular starter, reveals that even as the Pats top corner, Butler rarely faced great quarterback/receiver combos. The only teams from 2015 that fit that description were Pittsburgh, Dallas, Indianapolis, the New York Giants, and Denver. However, when they played the Patriots, the Cowboys were without QB Tony Romo, the Steelers were without wideout Martavis Bryant, and the Broncos were without QB Peyton Manning.
And an even closer look reveals that when Butler faced the full-strength Colts and Giants, he came up big. He had 5 of his 15 passes defended in those two games alone, including a game-saver against New York’s Odell Beckham Jr in the end zone. And against the Colts, he not only swatted away two Andrew Luck passes, but he tied for the team lead with 7 individual tackles.
The bottom line is we won’t know if Butler is sliding until October 16 and 23, when they take on the Bengals and Steelers back-to-back. And that will only reveal something if the best weapons stay healthy and on the field.
Even though Butler improved against the Texans, he might be experiencing some growing pains. As teams study his tendencies and adjust how they attack him, he might appear to slip a little bit. But no player studies harder or is as competitive as Butler, so rest assured he will adjust his game to beat the adjustments other teams are making. Especially when the lights are the brightest and the competition is the best.
Back to earth? Maybe a little. Going to stay there? Highly doubtful.