Cornerback Malcolm Butler: A Flash In The Pan Or Something Else?

New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler is a bonafide Super Bowl hero. His interception on the goal line stand in the final minute will live on in football lore as one of the most clutch plays in the game’s history. Is he the latest no-name player to shine briefly on the big stage and disappear or did we witness the emergence of a star?

Nearly everybody loves an underdog. And every year, following the NFL Draft, teams sign undrafted free agents hoping to hit the jackpot with one of them. Most of these players are nothing more than camp bodies, but, every now and then, an NFL front office stumbles upon a diamond in the rough.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seems to have a knack for finding these unheralded players more than other coaches. One such player is Malcolm Butler.

Maybe you’ve heard of him by now: He intercepted Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson at the New England 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX to clinch the 28-24 victory for the Patriots. Butler, an undrafted cornerback from the University of West Alabama, played in 11 games in the regular season, starting just one. But he emerged in the postseason as a dependable contributor.

Though now known for his Super Bowl heroics, Butler had his ups and downs throughout the regular season, posting an overall grade of 1.3 in Weeks 8 and 9, according to Pro Football Focus, and then struggling in Weeks 15 and 17 with grades of -2.1 and -1.2, respectively. Struggles like these aren’t uncommon for a rookie corner. Regardless, Butler still showed solid ability, both in press-man coverage and zone. Belichick craves versatility, and that certainly contributed to an increase in Butler’s playing time as the season progressed.

As the 2015 regular season approaches and Butler prepares to prove that he belongs in the league as a top-flight corner, let’s take a look back at his rookie season and see what he brings to the table and what he has to work on.

And certainly, there is plenty to work on.

For example, against the Denver Broncos in Week 9, Butler allowed a 25-yard completion to Denver WR Emmanuel Sanders:

butler-v-sanders

With the New England secondary playing a Cover 1 press-man coverage, Butler is on the outside covering Sanders. At the snap, Sanders runs a go route, and Butler does well in opening his hips fluidly and running downfield with Sanders. However, after nearly 20 yards, Butler seems to lose concentration as he turns to look back at Peyton Manning and lets Sanders gain separation. As the play breaks down, Sanders comes back on the route and loses Butler, allowing Manning to make an easy completion. Butler initially did a good job on this route by running downfield and staying close to his man, but must learn to turn and look back at the quarterback without losing his man.

Butler also struggled in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins, where he played 22 snaps and posted his worst PFF grade of the year (-2.1). This was mostly because of two plays by receiver Mike Wallace. The first came on Miami’s first snap of the game: Wallace beat Butler clean off the line of scrimmage for a 50-yard reception:

butler-v-wallace-1

With Devin McCourty as the lone high free safety and Miami with 11 personnel on the field, Butler is playing press man at the line of scrimmage on Wallace. Butler’s goal is to jam Wallace and mess up the timing on his route. However, Wallace fakes to the inside, and Butler bites on it. Wallace then runs past Butler, stutters, and gains even more separation. Butler struggles to catch up to his target and, with McCourty too far away to help, quarterback Ryan Tannehill finds his deep threat for the completion.

So what can Butler improve on here? First, he has to jam Wallace. If Butler is going to be able to succeed in man coverage, he has to learn to use his hands better to disrupt receivers’ routes. Next, he must learn not to fall for the double move, which Wallace used on him to gain separation. Young corners frequently have issues defending the double move (looking at you, Logan Ryan) and Butler is no different. He must learn to be more patient and stay with his man rather than biting on a fake.

Tannehill and Wallace targeted Butler again later that game, in the second quarter.

butler-v-wallace-2

With Butler on the outside in off coverage, and with two deep safeties in a Cover 2, Wallace runs a go route at the snap. Butler is playing an outside technique here, the goal of which is to funnel any vertical route run by Wallace to the safety for help. However, a subtle move to the inside by Wallace eliminates the outside position of Butler when the rookie bites on the move, and Wallace spins Butler around and burns him on his way to catching the deep ball in the corner of the end zone. It was another example of the rookie being schooled by the veteran. As Butler progresses, he will learn the tendencies of the receivers and will come to know their various tricks and schemes.

As the Patriots begin their title defense, Butler, with the noted departures of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, has emerged as New England’s #1 CB. Butler has drawn rave reviews in camp so far, underscored by the star treatment he received from Belichick and his coaching staff in the first preseason game against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, playing only 15 snaps in the first quarter. Butler was impressive when he did play, mainly going up against Green Bay’s second-year receiver Davante Adams.

Butler also showed a bit of physical play that wasn’t apparent last year. The Patriots surprisingly used a similar scheme to what they used last year, despite the absence of the man coverage abilities of Revis and Browner. This could be because they are bullish on their new corners’ ability to play man-to-man, or perhaps they are merely keeping their defensive schemes under wraps until the games count:

butler-hit-adams

On this play, the Patriots were playing Cover 3, with McCourty as the single high free safety. Butler was playing tight to the line of scrimmage, but bailed at the snap, playing an outside technique and giving Adams a cushion on his in route while Randall Cobb ran a quick out route underneath Adams. The receiver made the catch, but Butler put a good hit on him to bring him down and prevent him from gaining any yardage after the catch. Yes, Butler allowed Adams to make the catch, but that was more attributable to the scheme and less because of Adams getting the best of Butler. What is important to note here is the cornerback stopping the receiver from getting upfield by laying a good, clean hit on him.

On the next play, Butler got revenge on Adams:

butler-cover-adams

Here, Adams is running a seam route and Butler is in press man. Let’s compare this with the Sanders catch referenced earlier. Previously, Butler turned back to look at the quarterback and lost Sanders in the process. When doing the same against Adams, Butler was able to take a quick look into the backfield while maintaining his position on Adams. Without getting too physical and risking drawing a flag, Butler rides Adams’ hip and shades him closer to the sideline.

This is a great example of Butler’s downfield speed and his coverage abilities coming together. He reduces the window Rodgers has to find Adams on the sideline and the All-Pro quarterback would have to make an otherworldly throw to get the ball to Adams. Butler does a fantastic job of covering Adams here.

Later, Butler popped up on the tape again when Green Bay was in the red zone threatening to score from the 5. With McCourty playing down in the box, that left Adams split out right with Butler the lone man covering him. In this scenario, Rodgers knows immediately to make Adams the hot read.

butler-defend-adams

At the snap, Adams runs a fade route into the corner of the end zone, with Rodgers quickly lofting the ball to him after the snap. Butler stops moving his feet initially at the onset of Adams’ route which gives the receiver a bit of separation, but Butler recognizes the situation and quickly recovers. He then uses his left hand to tangle with the receiver’s hands and prevent him from catching the ball. Defending a fade route is very hard to do, and it is difficult to avoid committing a penalty while the ball is in the air. Butler does a great job of maintaining his composure while preventing Adams from catching the ball.

After a solid, yet inconsistent rookie campaign, Butler has shown that he is taking the next steps toward being a solid cornerback. It is tough to see him ever becoming a shutdown corner, as he does not have elite change of direction or fluidity, but he has shown he is adequate in all areas and is still improving. With the departure of Revis, a lot will be asked of Butler this season, but he has what it takes to become an important cog in the Patriots defense.

Follow Aidan on Twitter @ARCurran_28.

Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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