The Super Bowl XLIX-champion New England Patriots had two No. 1 cornerbacks, though few knew it until the final defensive play of the season.
Darrelle Revis locked down the left side of the field on the Patriots’ starting defense, while rookie Malcolm Butler drove quarterback Tom Brady crazy on the scout team as a reserve. When Butler picked off Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX, he was still a complete unknown to most outside the Patriots’ coaching staff.
When the Patriots lost Revis in free agency to the New York Jets, Plan B didn’t entail keeping Brandon Browner or overpaying a free agent. It meant promoting Butler.
Now Revis and Butler are both Pro Bowlers, and while they didn’t share the field Sunday in the New York Jets’ 26-20 win over the Patriots, it was difficult not to compare their performances.
Revis allowed one catch on three targets for 19 yards with an interception.
Butler allowed one catch on four targets for a 6-yard touchdown with a defensive pass interference penalty.
It’s possible Butler will eventually pass his predecessor in the NFL cornerback ranks as both players get older, but Revis was the better of the two in Week 16. The cornerbacks are used much differently, however.
Revis stuck to the right side of the field and covered whoever the Patriots threw at him, from tight end Rob Gronkowski to running back James White and rookie receiver Chris Harper. Revis was used in man coverage on 24 passing plays and zone nine times. He covered Gronkowski 13 times, wide receiver Brandon LaFell on 11 plays, Harper five times, Keshawn Martin on two dropbacks and Brandon Bolden and James White once apiece.
The Jets cornerback gave up a 19-yard catch to LaFell, lined up to the left of the Patriots’ offensive line, when he failed to track him in man coverage. Revis was spotted motioning “my bad” after leaving LaFell wide open.
Butler moved around the field and mostly stayed on Jets receiver Eric Decker. He was used in man coverage 32 times and zone on 11 plays. He covered Decker 28 times, Kenbrell Thompkins seven times, Quincy Enunwa six times and running back Bilal Powell twice.
The Patriots corner gave up the game-winning 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to Decker in overtime. Decker lined up in the right slot and simply ran past Butler as Fitzpatrick delivers a perfectly placed football.
Revis plays games at times, straying from a receiver while trusting his closing speed and instincts. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady treated Revis like he was still in his absolute prime, even though the cornerback seems like he might have lost one-24th of a step this season.
Revis picked off Brady when he took advantage of some miscommunication between the QB and Gronkowski, split wide at the top of the screen below.
Some cornerbacks might have continued to track Gronkowski, allowing the ball to fall incomplete. Revis wisely had an eye on the ball and made a game-changing turnover.
Butler is younger and scrappier and won’t take unnecessary risks. He tracks a receiver with all of his might and follows the Patriots’ fundamentals of turning and looking for the ball by following a receiver’s eyes. He too has made game-changing plays this season using that strategy, most notably in Week 10 against the New York Giants, when he swatted receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s arms just as he pulled in a pass in the end zone, jarring the ball loose.
Both Butler and Revis got lucky with inaccurate passes when they were beat by a step deep. The Patriots briefly caught Revis flat-footed on a flea flicker, giving Gronkowski, lined up at left end, a step on Revis before an overthrow from Brady.
Enunwa, in the right slot below, had a half-step on Butler before Fitzpatrick overthrew the big receiver in the first quarter.
There’s some uncertainty whether to credit another overtime reception to Butler. Decker lined up in the backfield, motioned right then lost Butler by doing a 180 and turning to the left. Patriots starting cornerback Logan Ryan motioned that he would pick up Decker, who by then had three steps on Butler. That would have passed Brandon Marshall onto Butler.
Butler must not have seen the signal, as both cornerbacks tracked Decker, leaving safety Duron Harmon alone and 5 yards away from Marshall, who hauled in a 20-yard pass.
Overall, both Butler and Revis performed extremely well, but the veteran outplayed the second-year pro. Patriots fans are free to continue their victory lap over finding a No. 1 cornerback for 1/30th of the cost — it’s why the Patriots have a better overall roster than the Jets — but for now, Revis proved he’s still the better player. That could change, however, and Revis is on the books for $17 million next season, while Butler is due just $600,000.
Thumbnail photo via Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports Images