The New England Patriots secondary continues to be a popular headline as the 2018 off-season grows closer. On Monday, safety Devin McCourty released a statement that Malcolm Butler‘s benching was common knowledge in the days leading up to Super Bowl LII. The inconsistency in stories surrounding Butler’s absence in the 41-33 championship loss mirrors the inconsistency in play that fans saw all season long from the Patriots defensive backfield. Although a weak division will likely propel the Patriots to another postseason appearance, a sixth ring for New England will continue to escape their grasp unless the defensive issue is rectified.

All Eyes on Patriots Defensive Backfield

Let Malcolm Butler Go

We get it. Malcolm Butler was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX. We get it. Malcolm Butler has been a leader in the secondary. We get it. Malcolm Butler said he wants to stay with the Patriots. We get it. Malcolm Butler led the team in passes defended. We get it.

None of this changes the fact that the relationship between Malcolm Butler and the New England Patriots is strained at best. Bill Belichick is refusing to budge on his terse response on why Butler was benched for Super Bowl LII and likely never will. Retaining Butler during the 2017 off-season seemed like a win for the Patriots, and in many ways it was. But now it is time to let those ties be severed. Butler is an unrestricted free agent this year, and trying to throw money at him to get him to stay is a mistake.

Offer Kyle Fuller a Job

Kyle Fuller is young, having just turned 26 last week. He was the top cornerback for the Chicago Bears in 2017, recording 61 tackles, 22 passes defended, and two interceptions. Compare that to Butler’s 55, 12, and two in the same categories. In Week 16, the Cleveland Browns rolled into Chicago with a fearsome weapon in Josh Gordon. Fuller had a season-high six passes defended in that game and held Gordon to only two receptions.

After Fuller missed 2016 with a knee injury, the Bears declined to pick up his fifth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent this off-season. While signing Fuller would not solve all of the problems in the secondary, replacing Butler with potential star talent will allow Stephon Gilmore to continue fleshing out his place in the New England defense.

While Fuller may be the top target for New England, the Patriots have established that they are more than willing to steal talent from divisional rivals. E.J. Gaines is coming off a 48 tackle, nine passes defended, one interception season with the Buffalo Bills. Anyone underwhelmed by those statistics should note that Gaines did that in only 11 games with Buffalo. The biggest knock against Gaines will be his injury history. Gaines has not played a 16-game season once during his four years in the league, and he missed the 2015 season entirely with a foot injury.

Reduce the Pressure on the Secondary

The Patriots defense finished in the bottom four for passing yards allowed. A huge part of this was the result of a lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Opposing quarterbacks’ ability to stand in the pocket and deliver without fear of a Patriots pass rush put enormous pressure on the secondary, and the secondary was not up to the challenge.

New England tried to address the defensive front issue this year, taking Deatrich Wise Jr. and Derek Rivers in the draft and acquiring James Harrison off waivers. Unfortunately, Rivers wound up on injured reserve and never saw a snap this season, and Harrison was brought on after most of the damage was already done. The sheer workload on the secondary forced the Patriots to rely heavily on lower-quality rotational defensive backs. Addressing the defensive front in the off-season, either by drafting an edge rusher in April or by signing a veteran, will help keep the top defensive backs on the field more often.

Fix the Communication/Assignment Issue

Miscommunication in the secondary was a major story in the first half of the season. The defensive backs were rarely on the same page when it came to coverage, and quarterbacks across the league exploited that.

A perfect example of this is a week two pass by Drew Brees to Brandon Coleman (3:19-3:51). The defense lines up in man coverage. Eric Rowe decides not to follow his assignment on the wheel route and turns his attention to Ted Ginn on the crossing route. He realizes too late that he left Coleman open on the sideline. A couple of terrible tackles later and the New Orleans Saints are in the red zone.

It is likely that Josh Boyer and Steve Belichick will remain in their respective roles as cornerbacks and safeties coaches, regardless of the defensive coordinator shakeup. This consistency ought to help the unit jell better than they did going into the 2018 season. The Butler Super Bowl Benching story is just a more personal example of the gross lack of unity in the secondary that manifested on the field. Hopefully, Boyer and Belichick can work together to present a more unified secondary going into a 2018 season that will feature potent quarterbacks like Aaron RodgersBen Roethlisberger, and Matthew Stafford.

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