By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Malcolm Butler’s workload suddenly became a source of controversy when the Pro-Bowl cornerback did not start and had a markedly reduced snap count against the Saints in Week 2. But it appears that all the talk of him being “phased out” of the defense was premature.
Butler was one of three Patriots who played all 71 defensive snaps against the Texans on Sunday, along with safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The corner had played 49 out of 65 snaps (75 percent) against the Saints, which raised eyebrows in light of his subpar performance to start the season. It likely helped Butler that Eric Rowe was inactive on Sunday.
The other Patriot whose snap count (or lack thereof) turned heads was Alan Branch, who played just six in New Orleans. He got bumped up to 21 snaps (30 percent) against the Texans, but it was still the lightest workload of all Patriots defensive linemen. Malcom Brown and rookie Adam Butler (46 snaps each) were among the linemen who out-snapped Branch.
Here are some other notable snap counts for the Patriots in Week 3:
- Rob Gronkowski played 64 of 65 snaps (98 percent) after leaving the game early in Week 2. Gronk caught eight of 10 targets for 89 yards and a touchdown, and was also an effective blocker against Texans pass rusher J.J. Watt on the right edge. So apparently, his groin injury was never a legitimate concern. Dwayne Allen’s snap count, meanwhile, dropped way off, as he played just 17 (26 percent) after playing 42 last week.
- It likely helped Malcolm Butler that Eric Rowe was inactive on Sunday. But Rowe’s absence actually led to a bump in playing time for Jonathan Jones, who played 42 snaps (59 percent) after playing 30 in the first two weeks combined.
- Defensive lineman Lawrence Guy got a significant bump in snaps, playing 51 (72 percent) after earning 56 in the previous two games combined. Guy helped make one of the defense’s best plays of the game, a third-and-1 stop against Texans running back Lamar Miller.
- Deatrich Wise Jr. got another uptick in snaps with 34 (48 percent) on Sunday. He played 17 and 28 snaps in Weeks 1-2. The rookie defensive end has the highest Pro Football Focus grade of all Patriots defenders through three weeks with an “above average” 84.2 mark.
It appears that Branch won’t necessarily lose his place on the Patriots defense entirely, but it’s clear that he still has plenty of work to do if he wants to reclaim the workload he had in 2016. Malcolm Butler, meanwhile, looks to have regained his typically prominent role in the secondary.
The defense’s poor game against the Texans is an entirely different issue. But the snap counts on the defense, particularly along the front line, continue to be worth monitoring.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.