New England Patriots Bye Week Review: Four Things We’ve Learned Through Week Four

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Sep 27, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) tackles Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. New England defeated Jacksonville 51-17. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

When the Patriots let Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington walk away in the offseason, many considered the pass defense was going to be a huge liability. In three weeks so far, it is clearly not the juggernaut it was in 2014, but is hardly the horror show it was in 2009 or 2011.

Remember, those teams depended on players such as Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite, Shawn Springs, Devin McCourty (at cornerback) and Darius Butler to try and slow opposing defenses. So far, Super Bowl hero and second-year cornerback Malcolm Butler has proven to be to be superior to any of the cornerbacks on those squads so far in 2015.

Butler struggled in week one versus Antonio Brown, but considering how skilled Brown is as a receiver, there were really only two glaring errors by Butler in that matchup. In week two, he shut down Sammy Watkins giving up just one completion to him in coverage. Last week, he had another strong game against Jacksonville with just one mistake in garbage time.

Sep 20, 2015; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan (26) intercepts a pass intended for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (14) during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Patriots beat the Bills 40-32. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

With Butler playing like a top cornerback, he has taken the pressure off of Tarell Brown and Logan Ryan. Brown plays outside and slides inside to play nickel cornerback and has been solid (he missed last week due to injury). With veteran Bradley Fletcher burned regularly in the first two weeks, Ryan has played a larger role the past two weeks and held his own in coverage.

Last week saw rookie free agent cornerback Justin Coleman getting extended playing time at cornerback and second round draft pick Jordan Richards at safety for the first time in 2015.  While the Jacksonville game devolved into a preseason feel in the second half, it was important to see the young secondary players getting significant playing time in the regular season.

The biggest issue for the Patriots’ secondary has been defending the deep vertical game. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are both solid in coverage and Devin McCourty is helpful back deep, but he cannot cover all of the field. Safeties Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon have missed some key tackles and given up big plays.

The passing defense will still be tested later in 2015 as Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Eli and Peyton Manning, Sam Bradford, and Ryan Fitzpatrick will be eager to test the secondary with their downfield passing attack. Until the New England defense can defend it with regularity, opponents are going to continue to attack the secondary. At this point, it is important that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia gets this unit improving each week so it can play strong in the postseason.

Next: Run Defense