Over the course of the past decade, the New England Patriots have tried to hit with high draft picks at the cornerback position, and that plan has not really worked out. They did hit in free agency with Darrelle Revis for one season, which helped get them back over the hump for another Super Bowl victory.
But after the many failed high draft picks, the Patriots have seemingly found a solid pair of cornerbacks in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. Butler, an undrafted free agent in 2014, made the game-sealing interception in that Super Bowl as a rookie, and has developed into a quality starter since then.
While Logan Ryan was a third-round draft pick, many believed that he was overdrafted, chalking it up as Bill Belichick’s affinity for Rutgers players—which, as a Rutgers alumnus, I don’t really get. Yet he has been making an impact since his rookie season.
Both Butler and Ryan stand at 5’11” and between 190 and 195 pounds, putting them at definitely average size for the cornerback position, but one thing that they have proven to be able to do is to play disciplined and within the confines of a defensive scheme. On a Belichick team, after all, failing to do so would get them benched.
The pair combined for six interceptions and 28 pass deflections this season, showing that they are able to make plays on the ball. Butler had three pass deflections and an interception in the Patriots’ previous game against the Steelers this year, while Ryan also had a pass deflection, though, of course, that came with Landry Jones at quarterback.
Still, the matchup between Butler and Ryan versus Antonio Brown and whoever else is rotating at the second outside receiver position at the time is going to be a critical component of this game. I think that gaining separation is going to be key, considering the way that Ben Roethlisberger has been playing, and the fact that they are able to get their hands on a lot of passes—five between them in the last meeting.
Pro Football Focus listed both of the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks in their top 12 at the position this past season in terms of their overall grade, as they have also proven to be solid run defenders without drawing a lot of penalties.
Against Brown in the previous meeting—though, again, with Jones at quarterback of course—Butler did allow him to gain 94 yards on five receptions, but did so on nine total targets, one of which was an interception that he took away in the end zone, for an overall quarterback rating when targeted of 37.7.
If Butler and Ryan can have success in limiting the Steelers’ wide receivers, they are going to struggle to find avenues in the passing game, and that is not a problem that they can afford to have when the Patriots’ offense is as threatening as it is.