FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots’ locker room isn’t always full during media availability, but when the defensive backs are together, it sounds like the place is packed.
New England’s secondary is a lively bunch. Strewn in front of their lockers, which sit side-by-side-by-side, are Ninja Turtle and Bowser backpacks, mini basketball hoops and even a box of Jenga pieces. The players are constantly goofing on one another for one reason or another. On Thursday, it didn’t take long after Devin McCourty praised Aqib Talib for the rest of the defensive backs to crack up laughing. McCourty’s availability was over. He could no longer compose himself.
That camaraderie appears to be helping their play on the field. New England is ranked 17th in pass defense this season, even after giving up 421 yards to Matt Ryan in Week 4 (almost 150 of which came in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots were already leading by 17 points).
“I think we’ve got better just through training camp and through the first couple weeks of the season,” McCourty said about the unit. “Just getting used to each other and I think that helps. We all hang out a lot off the field. We really get to know each other. While we’re out there on the field, I can tell how a certain guy is feeling. If he looks tired, if I see he needs — so I think just being around the same guys over a long period of time, it makes it a lot easier.”
It helps that eight of the 10 members of the secondary are returning from 2012. The two newcomers, Rutgers rookies Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, have been praised for how well they have adapted to the group (it probably helps that they already shared a connection). Ryan has emerged as the team’s fourth cornerback, and Harmon came into the season as the top reserve safety.
Both players seem to be falling into the group dynamic, as well. Reserve veteran cornerback Marquice Cole has nicknamed Harmon “Miley Cyrus” for his dance moves.
Talib has been the best player among the group. In the secondary’s biggest test, against Atlanta, the No. 1 cornerback did not allow a catch on seven targets while splitting his snaps between Julio Jones and Roddy White.
“I just think he’s been able to have a full season,” McCourty said about Talib in New England. “I think last year he was just thrown into the fire and a lot of things he had to learn on the run. This year, I think he’s just been able to go out there and play football.”
McCourty said he considers Talib one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL this season.
“Yeah. Definitely,” McCourty said. “I don’t think you can name top corners without naming him.”
Talib did struggle at times last season after he was traded from the Buccaneers to the Patriots along with a seventh-round pick for a New England fourth-rounder. But after a full offseason, Talib looks like he would have been worth a first-round pick.
“It’s a lot of communication,” Talib said about the group’s success. “It’s a lot of — ‘Hey Devin, if you do this, I’m gonna kinda play like this.’ We kind of have to get on the same page. That offseason, that full OTAs, it definitely helped us out a lot.”
Talib is far from the only star in the secondary. McCourty is playing at an All-Pro level back at free safety. Alfonzo Dennard rarely gets beat on the right side of the field. Kyle Arrington does a great job playing from the slot with no sideline or safety help to aid him. Steve Gregory has shown some major improvement after a full season with the team, as well.
McCourty had particular praise for the three cornerbacks that play in front of him.
“The thing for us is, we trust all three of those guys that go out on the field and play corner, with Aqib, Kyle and Zo,” McCourty said. “They’ve all gone out there and been out there in situations where it’s just man on man and they’ve made plays, so I think that’s key to our success. As long as they keep playing that way, we’ll be able to play good pass defense.”
Bill Belichick has shown more confidence in his cornerbacks this season. He trusts them in man coverage so much, he even pulled a safety off the field against the Buccaneers on some plays. For much of 2011 and 2012, the Patriots played in a cover two with two deep safeties and the cornerbacks in zone. This approach has been far more effective so far.
The Patriots are able to play in man because they have three cornerbacks who can play on an island. Dennard is physical all the way down the field with opposing receivers. Arrington has a nose for the football and rarely gets beat, even by the quickest and shiftiest of slot receivers.
“Yeah, we call those two guys the two midgets,” McCourty said about Arrington and Dennard. “That’s how they play. They play with a chip on their shoulders and they’re as tough as they come. Zo will go out there and match up with anybody, no matter the size, and you gotta love that in a guy. He’s a true competitor.”
The defensive backs have noticed the strong praise they have received this season. Add this column to the lengthy list of pieces commending the group. It seems the secondary is tough on themselves, though.
“We can definitely get better,” Talib said. “Y’all look at all the positive stuff. We kind of watch the tapes. We kind of take the negative and see how we can get better. We applaud the positive, but we really look at the negative and see how we can get better.
“That’s the kind of stuff we look at. We came away with, I think, one turnover. We feel like we should come away with more turnovers. We come away with one turnover, we feel like we should come away with three. We have to find a way, ‘How can we get three turnovers or four turnovers? How can we score a touchdown?’ We always just looking for ways to get better.”
It makes sense for Belichick to force his players to focus on the negative. If they keep reading the praise and get too confident, there’s a chance they get complacent. After years of watching a struggling secondary, though, it will be tough to find negativity in the press about a defensive backfield that finally appears to be clicking.