It took until the Super Bowl, but the Patriots’ myriad personnel issues on defense finally burned them on Sunday night against the Eagles. And they had issues that went beyond, and sometimes had nothing to do with, the absence of Malcolm Butler.
But before getting into that, it’s fair to note that Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles had his way with Butler’s replacements all night. Especially on third downs. According to research by the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe, Foles was 6-for-7 for 137 yards on third down when targeting Jordan Richards, Eric Rowe, and Johnson Bademosi. Butler probably could have helped in those situations more than those three, and it’s hard to accept otherwise.
However, Butler’s benching has nothing to do with the Patriots’ biggest problem on defense, and that’s a lack of talent in the front-seven. The issue was there all season. The Jacksonville Jaguars exposed it for much of the AFC Championship Game.
The Eagles exposed it for 60 full minutes, and on the biggest possible stage.
Butler’s absence had little to do with the Eagles’ Corey Clement getting behind Marquis Flowers, who couldn’t crack the Bengals’ roster in 2017, for his 22-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. There’s also not much Butler could have done to generate pressure on Foles, who made his best throw of the night on the play.
And speaking of pressure, there was practically none whatsoever. Trey Flowers? Beyond a QB hit, not much there. Kyle Van Noy, James Harrison? A play here and there, but ultimately inconsequential. The rest? Virtually invisible.
It may be a stretch to turn this into an argument that the Patriots should have kept Chandler Jones and/or Jamie Collins. But it’s not a stretch to say that the team has yet to sufficiently replace that talent in the past two seasons. And that finally came back to haunt them on Sunday night.
Butler’s absence also had little to do with the Patriots’ utter futility in covering Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. Butler would not have covered the 6-foot-5 Ertz, who roasted the likes of Richards, Devin Mccourty, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung anyway. Butler probably couldn’t have stopped Ertz from making three massive catches on the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Ertz made a third-down catch, a fourth-down catch, and the touchdown on that drive. The Patriots had no answers.
Either way, the Patriots had to head into the offseason needing significant upgrades on the front-seven. Their struggles in the Super Bowl only amplified those problems. And their priorities shouldn’t change, even with the struggles in the secondary.
The likelihood is that all the Patriots’ safeties are back in 2018. Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones are likely your starting cornerbacks. Dont’a Hightower will be back. But at the same time, you simply can’t trust Hightower to stay healthy for a full season at this point. Improvements and depth are needed almost throughout that whole defensive front, and the Eagles just gave Bill Belichick a bitter reminder of that.
Getting back the injured Hightower, Vincent Valentine, and Derek Rivers should help. But it might not be nearly enough to fix what you saw on Sunday.
Butler will justifiably be the defensive choice that dominates the post-game discussion after Super Bowl LII. But the truth is, the list of issues on that side of the ball is much longer than that.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.