Real Deal: Malcolm Butler learns from opening matchup against Antonio Brown

Malcolm Butler had his hands full covering the Steelers' Antonio Brown all night Thursday. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- From a bottom-line perspective, one might say it was a tough night for New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler against Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. The final numbers for Brown: nine receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown.

But looking a bit deeper, one also could say it wasn't as much of a struggle as it appeared to be.

No doubt, Brown gave Butler some issues, such as late in the second quarter when he aligned in the right slot, got a clean release at the line of scrimmage and beat him cleanly up the right sideline for a 37-yard gain.

Then there was more mastery early in the third quarter on smooth double move that resulted in a 33-yard reception (a lack of pressure up front helped the Steelers' cause).

In reviewing Brown's nine catches, those two stood out as decisive victories over Butler.

Everything else, from this viewpoint, fell closer to the category of contested play.

For example, Butler was right on Brown's hip on an incompletion up the right side midway through the second quarter, forcing a punt. The coverage also couldn't have been better on third-and-5 midway through the first quarter, but Brown somehow found a way to corral Ben Roethlisberger's pass for a 10-yard gain.

It was also noted that of Brown's nine catches, three of them came on the final drive when the Steelers were down two touchdowns. Those three grabs accounted for 53 yards.

So up to the final drive, when the Patriots seemed to soften things a bit, Brown had six receptions for 80 yards.

"I thought Malcolm competed really well," coach Bill Belichick said. "Both guys made some plays. It won’t get much tougher than that [for Butler]. Antonio is really a good player that’s good in the deep part of the field, he’s good on catch-and-run plays -- the screens they try to throw to him and the under routes and stuff like that and the intermediate routes. Hopefully we can learn from it all the way around. I thought it was a great battle."

For Butler, who played 68 of 73 snaps, he chalked it up as a valuable experience to grow in his second NFL season.

“I learned a lot,” Butler said. “[He's] one of the best players in the league. It let me know what I need to work on, what to expect. I will build off of it and try to improve. He's not a great player for nothing."