Devin McCourty's 2011 season was a cause for concern. The
same cornerback who was selected to the Pro Bowl during his rookie season just
a year earlier had suddenly forgotten how to play the position.
While the whispers of McCourty's struggles began to grow
into rumblings at the end of last season, aided by his eventual switch to
safety by season's end, they echoed even louder in recent weeks. An egregious
pass interference penalty that arguably cost the Patriots a win overshadowed
McCourty's solid performance in a loss to the Ravens. And that led to some
outright criticism of his play.
Speculation that McCourty wasn't fit, focused or dedicated
to his position began to fly around like vultures over a dying carcass. But the
talented corner has ignored all the negativity and just continued to hone his
craft. A reality that was on full display during the Patriots' win in Buffalo
McCourty's effort against the Bills was one reminiscent of
his Pro Bowl rookie season. The third-year corner racked up five tackles, including
one for a loss, and showed off his play-making abilities on the outside with a
pair of interceptions that helped spur the Patriots comeback from a 14-point
deficit. But while Sunday's performance may have been McCourty's best this
season, he's been much better on the whole than he's being given credit for.
Defensive backs aren't often recognized for their work in
the run defense, but McCourty has quietly established a reputation as one of
the best run stopping corners in all of football. He's been a big contributor
to the Patriots eighth-ranked rush defense, and it shows in some of his work
New England's Week 1 rout of the Titans was as much
predicated on strong defensive showing as it was the work of Tom Brady and
Stevan Ridley. And McCourty played a big role in the Patriots stifling defense,
especially against Tennessee's running game.
As the Patriots shut down Chris Johnson to the tune of 11
carries for just four yards, it was Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and the other
guys up front who received the praise for their efforts. But McCourty's ability
to close down holes on the outside helped keep the Pro Bowl running back from
ever reaching the edge. He worked similarly against Beanie Wells and Ryan
Williams, helping hold the Cardinals to just 102 yards on the ground. But that
excellent defensive effort was veiled by a crushing last-second loss.
McCourty's presence in the running game has proven
important, but he's also shown much improved skills as a tackler. His whiff on a
Dennis Pitta touchdown in Baltimore may be the sticking memory of McCourty's
tackling inability, but the reality is quite the opposite. McCourty has shown a
knack to wrap up and take opposing receivers to the ground consistently. His 22
tackles this season, good for second on the Patriots behind only Mayo, only
goes on to prove that fact.
After such an underwhelming 2011, and a few noticeable gaffes
early this season, McCourty's status as a true No. 1 corner came under scrutiny.
But even as that reputation precedes him, he has shown up in a big way in
coverage for the Patriots at times this season.
McCourty has done an impressive job on the outside, helping
to shut down Pro Bowl-caliber receivers such as Larry Fitgerald (one catch,
four yards), Stevie Johnson (two catches, 23 yards) and Anquan Boldin (four
catches, 48 yards). His ability to make plays on the ball has also been
showcased, as McCourty ranks second in the league with eight passes defended and
a pair of interceptions through four games.
Sure, a couple of dropped interceptions and the pass
interference call in Baltimore serve as reminders of the potential that
McCourty has still yet to fulfill. And he may never amount to the elite talent
possessed by Champ Bailey or Charles Woodson on the outside. But McCourty has
the talent to be a true No. 1 corner and he continues to prove it each week,
even if no one is willing to acknowledge it.