The playoffs started on the wrong foot for New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler: Tennessee rookie wide receiver Corey Davis made a spectacular one-handed catch for a touchdown in front of Butler on the Titans’ second possession. He ended the game with five catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns (all statistics from NFL.com unless otherwise noted).
Most of Davis’ work in the passing game came against Butler. ProFootballFocus.com tracked Davis–who had just 34 receptions in the regular season and no touchdowns–catching three of four passes for 43 yards while Butler was in coverage.
Butler was not targeted as much in the AFC Championship game as ProFootballFocus.com tracked him allowing just two receptions on four targets for 44 yards. In re-watching that game, I disagree with PFF’s grading as New England played more zone coverage than usual and a number of passes in his zone were completed in front of him.
Super Bowl Controversy
Butler made headlines in the aftermath of Super Bowl 52 not for what he did on the field, but rather for what he did not do. He was effectively benched for the game playing only a snap on special teams. After playing almost 99% of the defensive snaps in 2017 in the regular season and playoffs he played none in the biggest game.
Although getting the real story in New England again requires waiting for Bill Belichick to publish his memoirs when he retires, it did not appear to be disciplinary. Butler clearly did not play as well down the stretch and struggled last year in the Super Bowl playing in the slot. New England clearly wanted bigger cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore on the outside against the bigger Eagles receivers.
Maybe it was as simple as the Patriots did not think Butler matched-up well with Nelson Agholor. Either way, Butler’s less-than-stellar performance versus Tennessee and Jacksonville contributed to his spot on the bench in Super Bowl 52.