The New England Patriots selected cornerback Devin McCourty with the 27th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft. The pick raised some eyebrows (a common occurrence with Bill Belichick involved) as McCourty was viewed only as a special teams ace with a chance to contribute as a nickel CB in his rookie season. Almost immediately, Belichick began praising his instincts and ability to pick up the defense and McCourty was thrust into a starting cornerback role.
McCourty exceeded expectations throughout 2010, not missing a defensive snap until Week 8 and excelling on multiple special teams units. His biggest contribution, though, was locking down the LCB job, a key position that had been a revolving door since Asante Samuel left the team after the 2007 season.
Taking home the Pro Football Focus Rookie of the Year honors for 2010, McCourty was consistently one of the best CBs in the league, finishing ninth in our overall ratings at +11.6 and seventh among CBs with a +9.4 coverage grade.
Thus far in 2011, McCourty’s play has produced different results. He has a -6.3 coverage rating on the season and has given up more yards on balls thrown his way than any CB in the league. He is also tied for the league lead in receptions allowed and had been targeted more than any other corner heading into the Patriots’ Week 7 bye.
Here’s a closer look at the numbers:[table "221" not found /]
The one stat that really stands out is the number of big plays McCourty has surrendered in 2011. Last year, it was nearly impossible to beat him deep, but this year he has already given up seven plays of 25 yards or more. To his credit, he has faced some very good wide receivers in Vincent Jackson, Brandon Marshall, and Steve Johnson, but this is not much different than the slate he faced in 2010.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing McCourty early in the season was handling a new assignment. The Patriots played a lot of press coverage early on and doing so may have taken McCourty away from his strengths.
Again, McCourty’s biggest asset last season was his ability to avoid the big play. He was asked to play a lot of “off” man and zone concepts and he really excelled at covering receivers deep and keeping completed passes in front of him. His first interception of his career is a great example of this during Week 7 against the Chargers. In the second quarter with 5:11 to go on 3rd-and-17, McCourty is matched-up with WR Patrick Crayton. McCourty gives about a 4-yard cushion and uses his hands to redirect Crayton toward the sideline. Crayton gains a step on McCourty on the deep route, but McCourty shows great closing speed and makes a play on the ball for the INT.
Week 13 against the Jets is another great example of McCourty’s ability to play the deep pass. He is matched up with WR Braylon Edwards on 2nd-and-2 with 3:58 to go in the third quarter. He gives Edwards a 3-yard cushion and is not very physical at the line, instead choosing to mirror Edwards and match him stride-for-stride down the field. QB Mark Sanchez throws it up and McCourty is right on Edwards’ hip and in perfect position to make the INT.
Finally, in the Week 15 game against the Packers, McCourty shows his versatility by matching-up with speedy WR James Jones. On 2nd-and-10 in the first quarter with 5:37 left, McCourty lines up on Jones, giving about 5 yards of space. Jones runs the “go” route and once again, McCourty mirrors his actions and keeps pace down the field. QB Matt Flynn throws the deep ball, but McCourty makes a great play to knock it away.
In 2010, McCourty showed a great ability to play off receivers and redirect them slightly on their routes. He was not terribly physical at the line, but he did a great job of mirroring their movements at the snap and putting himself in great position to defend the deep pass. The interceptions he collected on those deep throws were a result of McCourty’s ability to locate the football and use his outstanding ball skills to become a playmaker for the Patriots’ defense.
When discussing the Patriots’ change in defensive philosophy for 2011, most tend to cite the change from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme. While the alignment of the front seven has certainly been different, perhaps the most drastic change the first few weeks of the season was in the secondary. Belichick’s defense usually plays multiple coverages which are designed to take away big plays. Early in 2011, possibly due to inexperience at safety, he rolled the dice by playing more man-to-man press coverage, and McCourty was out of his element.
Opening night against the Miami Dolphins, McCourty matched-up often with physical WR Brandon Marshall. Marshall excels at beating CBs off the line and McCourty was no exception. In the fourth quarter with 8:21 to go, the Dolphins faced a 1st-and-10. McCourty lines up 2 yards off Marshall and tries to press him at the line. Marshall easily swats him away and finds himself wide open. QB Chad Henne hits Marshall in stride between McCourty and the safety for a 31-yard gain.
The next week was more of the same against the San Diego Chargers. With 13:25 to go in the first quarter, McCourty was lined-up on another big WR in Vincent Jackson. This time, Jackson is in the slot and McCourty gives another a 2-yard cushion on 1st-and-15. McCourty attempts to bump him at the line, to no avail and Jackson comes wide open on the corner route about 20 yards downfield. The play goes for 29 yards. Later in the game, the Chargers run an almost identical play which leads to a 26-yard touchdown for Jackson.
It is not just the big, physical WRs who have given McCourty problems. Week 3 against the Buffalo Bills, he lines-up on shifty Donald Jones in the fourth quarter with 3:25 left in the game. It’s an obvious passing situation and McCourty presents in tight press coverage on Jones on 1st-and-10. Again, McCourty tries to play physical at the line, but Jones’ nifty jab step inside forces him to completely whiff. The result is an easy pitch-and-catch from QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and a 29-yard gain. Earlier in the game, WR Steve Johnson beat McCourty with the same jab step for an 11-yard touchdown.
After three weeks of giving up 390 yards/game through the air, it appeared in Week 4 that the press coverage experiment was over for the Patriots. Unfortunately for McCourty, the return to the schemes that helped him excel as a rookie in 2010 has still not yielded impressive results.
During the Week 6 game against Dallas, the teams were tied in the fourth quarter and with 7:34 to play and the Cowboys faced a 2nd-and-10. The Patriots were clearly trying to avoid surrendering the big play as McCourty lined up on WR Laurent Robinson giving about a 7-yard cushion. QB Tony Romo hits Robinson on a five yard hitch route with McCourty in perfect position to make the tackle short of the first down marker. Surprisingly shoddy tackling from McCourty led to Robinson spinning out of his grasp and turning the 5-yard hitch into a 31-yard gain. After missing only four tackles in 2010, McCourty has already missed six here in 2011.
After McCourty showed himself to be one of the bright young CBs in the league last season, he has clearly taken a step back. At first it seemed the change in scheme was to blame, but his tackling struggles are also alarming. Belichick is always re-shaping his defensive scheme and if he once again calls for press coverage, McCourty must show he is able to play physically and win the battle at the line. If the game plan calls for more conservative coverage, McCourty must get back to his 2010 form with sure tackling, while also taking away deep plays as he’s shown he can. With 10 games remaining, McCourty needs to show improvement quickly or the “sophomore slump” theory will turn to questions of which season actually showed us the real Devin McCourty.
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