Malcolm Butler’s Patriots Finale

Three years ago he was an unknown, undrafted rookie who made one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. On Sunday, Butler will likely be lining up as a Patriot for the last time. Here’s what he means to this defense
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Three years ago, Malcolm Butler became an overnight star with his stunning game-winning interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Quick aside: the controversy over Seattle’s decision to throw the ball here, rather than hand it to Marshawn Lynch, unfortunately overshadowed what Butler did. That ending was more about great defense than poor offensive play-calling. The Seahawks ran a one-yard quick slant off a stack release; almost never does a corner break up that pass, let alone intercept it.)

Sunday will be Butler’s third Super Bowl, and probably his last for the Patriots. He is a free agent after this season. The Patriots chose to move on from him last offseason by signing free agent Stephon Gilmore. Knowing they couldn’t pay two corners top dollar, they tried to trade Butler rather than risk losing him in 2018 and getting only a compensatory pick. He’s still in New England because a deal with the Saints fell through.

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It has worked out fine for Butler. He stayed healthy in 2017 and is now the top corner in a weak free agent market. He is unique because he follows smaller, quicker receivers—guys like Antonio Brown or T.Y. Hilton. Most No. 1 corners take bigger, physical receivers, like the Julio Jones and Mike Evans types. The only other corners who have consistently traveled with undersized No. 1 receivers are Detroit’s Darius Slay, Titans first-round rookie Adoree' Jackson, Denver’s Chris Harris (most of the time) and, if need be, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson.

Butler isn’t flawless; slow-developing double-moves and field-crossing redirection routes occasionally get him, but never enough that the Patriots have to alter their matchup coverages. Those matchup coverages have tremendous flexibility given that the corner opposite Butler, Gilmore, can travel with bigger receivers. These benefits will be on full display Sunday. Butler will take Torrey Smith, a straight-line speedster who doesn’t have the change-of-direction deftness to exploit Butler’s vulnerabilities. Smith will also have trouble with Butler’s feisty handwork. Gilmore will be on Alshon Jeffery, a sizeable contested catch artist, but one who sometimes struggles against physical press coverage. The Patriots can count on both corners to win one-on-one outside.

Inside, Eric Rowe, with his long arms and high-cut body, is an unconventional corner in the slot, where typically small, twitchy players do the job. But Rowe has been rock-solid down the stretch. You can’t truly press from the slot—receivers there align behind the line of scrimmage, which naturally gives them free access off the snap. Still, you can be physical later in the route, inside of five yards. Rowe will almost certainly do this against Nelson Agholor, who moved to the slot because he struggled against press coverage in his first two years playing on the perimeter.

If the Eagles are to win, it will be with their tight ends and running backs. New England’s corners are perfectly suited to handle Philly’s wide receivers. If those wideouts are to get involved, it will be on passes out of likely running situations, where cushiony zone coverage is more likely.

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