By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
BOSTON (CBS) -- Buried there among the weekly avalanche of numbers, the Indianapolis Colts targeted Malcolm Butler 13 times on Sunday night. The Colts completed seven passes. And while that might seem like a reasonably good performance for the second-year Patriots cornerback, closer inspection prompts a relatively interesting question.
Is Butler playing as well as you think he is?
According to Pro Football Focus, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck had a 99.2 rating when throwing at Butler in Sunday's 34-27 Patriots victory at Lucas Oil Stadium. Indianapolis receivers totaled 83 yards (including 27 after the catch) and one touchdown, the score coming by Indianapolis wide receiver Donte Moncrief on fourth down, on 1-on-1 coverage, on the first drive of the game.
That one play should tell you plenty.
First, the Colts had no aversion to throwing at Butler, on the goal line, with no margin for error. Second, the touchdown Butler allowed was the fourth he has surrendered this season, tied for fourth-most among all cornerbacks in the NFL. And third, with the New York Jets coming to Foxboro this week, the Patriots still do not have anything close to a suitable replacement for Darrelle Revis.
New England's secondary remains its most vulnerable area and everybody knows it, regardless of who is opposite Butler on the field.
Which is to say that Butler has been part of the issue, too.
Of course, none of this is the fault of Butler, who by all accounts has been competing his tail off. At the risk of borrowing a phrase from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Butler is who he is. Prior to his historic play in the final seconds of the Super Bowl, Butler was a street free agent with some promise. Sometime between then and now, depending on who you listened to, he turned into something resembling Deion Sanders, which is downright silly.
Make of this what you will, but among the 62 NFL cornerbacks who have played at least 60 percent of their team's snaps on defense, Butler ranks 52nd in defensive passer rating (119.8). That number takes on greater meaning when one considers that the Patriots have played a list of quarterbacks that include Tyrod Taylor, Blake Bortles and Brandon Weeden, who aren't exactly Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino.
In fact, in the two games the Patriots have played high-end quarterbacks – against Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger) and Indy (Luck) – Butler has allowed 17 completions on 24 attempts for 234 yards and two touchdowns, a passer rating of 129.5. Put him against a real quarterback and a real receiver – or something close to it – and he hasn't measured up.
Before Patriots followers overreact to this … don't. We all know coach Bill Beliehick has a method to his madness. First, the Patriots have won every game thus far. Second, Butler is gaining valuable experience against top-notch receivers, most notably Antonio Brown in Week 1. The fact that Belichick frequently continues to leave Butler in man-to-man situations tells you he is trying to build something at left corner – and that he recognizes enough talent and work ethic in Butler to invest the time.
So could Butler be an elite corner in the NFL someday? Sure. Maybe. But he's probably not even in the upper half right now, at least in terms of pass coverage, not when quarterbacks like Roethlisberger and Luck are targeting him an average of 12 times per game and completing more than 70 percent of their passes for a stratospheric rating.
The bottom line: Butler has been in position to make plays. He just hasn't made them. This is a stark contrast from Revis, who currently ranks second among all NFL corners in passer rating (32.1) and who ranked sixth (72.2) among all qualifying NFL corners in that statistic a year ago. And as we all remember, the 2014 Patriots faced a succession of passing games at one point that featured, among others, quarterbacks Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning or receivers Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson.
Let's go back to last year's Super Bowl for a moment. On Butler's game-saving play, Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin was lined up wide left. Revis went with him. As a result, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson never even considered the offensive left side of the field, targeting the mismatch with Butler and Ricardo Lockette. As we all know now, Butler and Lockette was indeed a mismatch – in favor of the Patriots.
But Sunday? At the goal line on the first drive of the game, Moncrief lined up wide left. Butler went with him. And this time, the quarterback never even considered going anywhere but the offensive left, leading to a touchdown that the 6-foot-2 Moncrief pulled down to give the Colts a 7-0 lead.
Butler, as usual, gave a terrific effort on the play.
But if someone like Revis were there, one can't help but think the Colts would have done something altogether different.
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