Devin McCourty Emerging As NFL’s Premier Safety, Helping Patriots Limit Big Plays on Defense

Devin McCourty, Jeff CumberlandFOXBORO, Mass. — When Devin McCourty moved from cornerback to safety last season, a change occurred: The Patriots stopped allowing so many big plays.

Opposing teams are still willing to challenge New England on plays thrown over 20 yards, they’re just not hitting nearly as many of those bombs down the field. Over the last three years, opposing teams have completed just 35.2 percent of passes over 20 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in games when McCourty plays safety. When McCourty’s at cornerback or out of the game, opposing teams complete 43.4 percent of passes with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

The Patriots are allowing 58.4 yards per game on big plays when McCourty’s at safety and 70.4 yards per game without McCourty patrolling the back end of the field.

This season, the Patriots have allowed 16 completions on 50 throws of over 20 yards for 457 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.

Patriots defense vs. throws over 20 yards (stats culled from Pro Football Focus):

2013: 8 games, 16-50, 32%, 457 yards, 3 TDs, 4 INTs
2012: 18 games, 40-102, 39.2%, 1,186 yards, 13 TDs, 9 INTs
2011: 19 games, 41-87, 47.1%, 1,306 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs
McCourty at safety: 18 games, 38-108, 35.2%, 1,051 yards, 10 TDs, 9 INTs
McCourty not at safety: 27 games, 63-145, 43.4%, 1,900 yards, 13 TDs, 8 INTs
Losses: 10 games, 23-62, 37.1%, 730 yards, 6 TDs, 1 INT
Wins: 35 games, 74-177, 41.8%, 2,219 yards, 16 TDs, 15 INTs

McCourty started out the year as a dependable presence at free safety, though he wasn’t making many flashy plays. Over the last few weeks, McCourty has shined more and more. He had a huge pass deflection in the end zone against the Jets, and his tip to Marquice Cole in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins was a thing of beauty. It was a game-changing play that only a player of McCourty’s caliber would have had the awareness and ability to make.

With Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu getting older, McCourty may have emerged as the league’s premier safety, as crazy as that sounds. Earl Thomas is up there, Eric Berry and Jairus Byrd are up there, but McCourty has been as good as anyone this year, and he’s only gotten better since making the switch last season.

McCourty’s not the traditional big-hitting safety over the middle of the field, but his instincts, speed and awareness are all elite. He’s a great run-stopper, and he’s even been asked to come down and play a little cornerback, nickel back and dime back this season. McCourty’s experience at cornerback is huge, and it shows with his ball skills.

The Patriots’ pass defense has made a huge jump over the last two years. Gone are the days when teams could pass on New England all day. McCourty being a dependable presence at safety may be the biggest reason for the change. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard‘s impressive play has certainly helped, as has Kyle Arrington‘s slot play and Logan Ryan‘s emergence. But McCourty is helping keep opposing teams completing just two throws over 20 yards per game this season. And over the last four games, the defense has allowed just five throws over 20 yards.

Out of anyone on defense right now, McCourty may be the most irreplaceable. And that includes players like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo that are already lost for the season.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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