In a way, Malcolm Butler was born on February 1st, 2015. In a flash, Butler went from being a total unknown to making conceivably the biggest play in Super Bowl history. Undrafted free agents Butler and Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette collided into each other on a goal line throw from Russell Wilson, Butler came away with it and the New England Patriots won 28-24. It would have been unsurprising then if Butler disappeared back into obscurity like past Super Bowl heroes such as David Tyree or Dexter Jackson, but instead it's been quite the opposite. A Pro Bowler in 2015, and for some one of the top five cornerbacks in the NFL today, Butler can no longer hide. And if the Patriots are going to win their second championship in the last three years, they're going to need Butler to be at his best.
Because Julio Jones is not Ricardo Lockette.
When New England was last in the Super Bowl, facing those Seahawks, the story of the game was similar to how it is now but reversed; Seattle had the number one scoring defense and the elite secondary, the Patriots relied mostly on Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and offense that was perfectly capable of putting up 40 points. This time, New England has the number one scoring defense, and it's Atlanta who boasts a likely MVP at quarterback with Matt Ryan, a number one receiver to rival them all in Jones, and the number one scoring offense. Ryan set an NFL record with his 9.3 yards per attempt, and posted a passer rating of 117.1, better even than Brady's, who threw 28 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The Falcons not getting meticulously deconstructed by Brady and Bill Belichick is certainly a key to the game, but how they do in coverage against Jones and if that will be enough to keep Atlanta from scoring on every drive may be the key to the game.
Jones' modest touchdown total of six may erroneously lead you to believe that he had a down season, but it's exactly what offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wanted to see in order for the Falcons to have a balanced, varied, unstoppable offense. There were 13 different players who caught a touchdown from Ryan (an NFL record) and Jones was still tied for the most scores on the team alongside fellow receiver Taylor Gabriel. Jones also casually put up 300 yards against the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, and had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. Over his last 50 starts, Jones has averaged 109.1 yards per game, a total that many players struggle to achieve even once in a given season.
Will Butler and the rest of the Patriots defense be able to contain him? They may have a good case that they can.
Though they faced a number of top-end receivers this season, New England has yet to really be torched by any one of them. They've only allowed four players to gain more than 100 yards, the most of which came from Jarvis Landry of the Miami Dolphins, who had 10 catches and 135 yards back in Week 2. He's the only receiver this season, including playoffs, to have more than the aforementioned 109 yards in a single game against the Patriots. Other notable receivers they've faced include Antonio Brown (106 yards in Week 7, 77 yards in the conference championship), A.J. Green (88 yards), Demaryius Thomas (91 yards), Larry Fitzgerald (81 yards), Brandon Marshall (67 yards in Week 12, 28 yards in Week 16), and Terrelle Pryor (48 yards). We don't know yet if Belichick will have Butler track Jones, as he has done against many elite receivers, including Brown on Sunday, or if he'll put a bigger corner like Eric Rowe on Jones, who is five inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than Butler. Rowe is much worse than Butler en total, but perhaps Belichick's strategy will be to give safety help over the top on Jones and use his top cornerback to take Mohamed Sanu out of the game.
Is it better to get beat a lot by Jones and not at all by anyone else, or to focus everything on Jones and hope to not get beaten consistently in other area of the fields?
If the answer is the latter, Shanahan might still be okay, because Atlanta has been excellent at remaining effective when Jones is contained. In fact, they've won their last six games when Jones had fewer than 90 yards. The matchups in the passing game when the Falcons have the ball would then turn to corners Rowe and Logan Ryan against receivers Gabriel and Sanu. Keep an eye on them, because even though Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin had only 59 yards against the Pats in Week 10, he also scored three times as the Seahawks won 31-24. Ryan will probably target at least 10 different players in the game, because that’s what they do, but still none of them will hold as much significance as Butler vs Jones when that materializes.
This is the best you can hope to see in any football game: A franchise receiver against a franchise cornerback.
For Jones, his pro career started in drastically different fashion than Butler's did. In 2011, Atlanta drew some criticism for moving up 20 spots to select Jones sixth overall, giving up a future first, their second rounder, and two fourth rounders in addition to their current first in order to take Jones. As good as a prospect as he was – and indeed he was pretty much the perfect prospect – could any receiver be that valuable? The pressure was on Jones from the beginning because of how great he was supposed to be. The pressure has been on Butler since that day two years ago because he was never supposed to be great.
On February 5th, they meet for the first time. Pay careful attention. These moments come and go in a flash.