BOSTON (CBS) -- So about the Patriots secondary being their weak spot...
Continuing to defy the many critics and skeptics they had entering the 2015 season, the backend of the Patriots defense - particularly the cornerbacks - had another strong effort against the Houston Texans Sunday night. That they practically wiped DeAndre Hopkins out of the game is proof of their prowess.
It was reasonable to be skeptical of the Patriots' ability to cover top receivers and defend strong passing games, as Bill Belichick let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk and turned to the talented-but-unproven Malcolm Butler and the took-a-step-back-after-a-solid-rookie-season Logan Ryan to anchor the defense outside the numbers. Both backs have answered the challenge and flourished as a strong complement to the Patriots' ferocious front seven, while also taking a lot of pressure off of Tom Brady and the banged-up Patriots offense.
After weeks of tinkering with the secondary and figuring out his best personnel, Belichick finally settled on Ryan as the No. 2 corner behind Butler and continued to employ the same press-man coverage that many believed they may abandon after losing Revis and Browner. With Ryan and an over-the-top safety (typically Devin McCourty) covering top receivers and Butler often manning up on No. 2's, the unit has made things surprisingly difficult for opposing offenses.
Butler has also had opportunities to face top pass-catching threats one-on-one, and has delivered in that regard as well, most notably shutting down the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. after allowing an early touchdown that wasn't even his fault. You no longer have to be surprised by how the secondary has played for the Patriots, because Butler has emerged as a true No. 1 cornerback capable of performing against some of the game's top receivers.
As great as it has been to see Butler prove that his Super Bowl-saving interception wasn't a fluke play, it's arguably been even more encouraging to see Ryan rebounding from a down year in 2014 as he languished at the bottom of the Patriots depth chart. But it appears that Belichick made the right choice to retain Ryan on the roster as the top backup corner, and instead jettison Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard in his razing of the secondary.
Ryan showed glimpses of being a solid cover corner with good ball skills in his rookie year, so it's great to see him not just bouncing back after a down year in 2014 but getting even better. Keeping Hopkins in check wasn't Ryan's first big-time performance; he demoralized Demariyus Thomas against the Broncos too. It was more of the same against Hopkins, who absolutely abused Revis a few weeks ago - and Ryan continued to cover Hopkins well even after McCourty left the game with an ankle injury.
Ryan clearly has confidence in himself, whether he's gained it recently or it's always been there. He agreed with Belichick that he was the right guy to put on Hopkins.
"I felt like I had good ball skills too, so I thought it was a good matchup," Ryan said after the game on Hopkins' pass-catching ability. He also credited the rest of the defense with doing their job, and making his easier in the process.
"When I get my assignment, I take it to heart," Ryan said, "and that's what we do here, man. Us on defense ... We have matchups, we have gameplans, that we try to execute. And if I do my job and everyone does their job next to me, it all works out."
Butler did get beat on a couple of deep throws to the Texans' Nate Washington, but he also broke up a handful of potential big plays too. Washington is a veteran receiver and a strong deep threat, so it's reasonable to expect him to make a couple of plays over the course of a game. Butler kept him out of the end zone, which was the most important part.
As well as Butler and Ryan have played this season, the famous Belichick Bargain Bin may have struck again with new acquisition Leonard Johnson, who appears to have already leapfrogged Justin Coleman on the depth chart. The corner stood out with a few impressive-looking defended passes. Johnson may not be as good as he looked Sunday night, but if down the stretch he can give the Patriots even a sliver of the playmaking he flashed against the Texans, he could be this year's Akeem Ayers.
The only offense left that feels like it poses a significant threat to the Patriots defense is the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is playing out of its mind right now led by Ben Roethlisberger and his dynamic downfield weapons. They played the Patriots without big play threat Martavis Bryant on opening night and Antonio Brown put up outstanding numbers even with Butler keeping up with him well in coverage, so if the Steelers sneak into the playoffs and get to Foxboro for a playoff game with all of the same weapons they have right now, their offense could present more problems than any the Patriots have faced.
But one thing is clear about this Patriots secondary: they are a far cry from the dumpster fires that infested the backend for several years in the middle of the Brady/Belichick era, and are playing just as well as last year's Revis-Browner combo. Butler is emerging as a legitimate No. 1, while Ryan has also established himself as a good cover corner. If they can continue to complement the front seven with such strong coverage, the defense could be the true path to a fifth Patriots Super Bowl win.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Read more from Matt here. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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