When the New England Patriots' defense took the field Sunday in New Orleans, Malcolm Butler started on the sideline. The benching came as a surprise to many, as corner Eric Rowe took over the first-team gig.
Butler struggled in the preseason and again in Week 1, and coach Bill Belichick made it clear during a conference call Tuesday the team isn't thrilled with the corner's performance.
"Well, look, we're into a new season, so I don't think anybody's performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be," Belichick said, according to team transcripts. "We all need to do a better job -- players, coaches -- all of us across the board. Hopefully, we'll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That's why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully we'll all be able to improve."
As usual, Belichick and his staff are in lockstep when discussing players. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia reiterated that no player -- even a former Super Bowl hero -- would be able to rest on his laurels.
"It's all about this year," Patricia said. "I think what things have gone down in the past don't really matter to us. We're trying to get better for this year and the guys that are out there and positions are where we think they need to be right now currently, and to help us win that particular week. So, certainly with Eric Rowe involved, having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint. I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field, and whatever that is, depending on how the game is going, kind of just plays itself out when we're in the particular situation we're in."
Butler's benching -- he played 47 of 63 snaps, seeing an uptick when Rowe left hurt -- wasn't the only surprise. Defensive tackle Alan Branch played just six snaps, with undrafted rookie Adam Butler starting and playing 70 percent of the snaps.
Both Branch and Butler got bullied in Week 1 -- the corner giving up another touchdown in Week 2 won't help his cause -- so the change in the rotation doesn't come as a surprise to those familiar with Belichick's modus operandi.
"Yeah, I saw they had some personnel changes," newly retired Rob Ninkovich told the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian. "I think they were stirring the pot to try and get guys motivated. I know they do a lot of different things to try and motivate guys. They'll push buttons to try and get the best out of people. At the same time, they're trying to get the best guys on the field."
Whether the changes become permanent or were merely a kick-in-the-pants to two veterans will be one thing to monitor in Sunday's tilt versus the Houston Texans. Belichick uses the first quarter of the season to test-drive his team before hitting high-gear for the stretch run. This week's tinkering on defense is part of the feeling out process.