FOXBORO, Mass. — There are three kinds of safeties in the NFL.
There are those who are considered the best of the best: The Troy Polamalus and Ed Reeds of the league. Typically, those are the safeties that are known for big plays, and any mistake they make is overshadowed by their reputation.
There are also those who stay mostly invisible. This is a pretty good place to be as an NFL safety. It means that player isn’t making many mistakes. It also means they aren’t making enough big plays, or they’re not on a high-enough-profile team, to earn a positive reputation.
The third kind is the most common. If he’s doing his job, he stays invisible. But if it looks like he’s giving up too many big plays or taking too many bad angles, he becomes a scapegoat for the entire defense.
The Patriots have seen plenty of that third kind of safety.
But right now, they have a guy who’s teetering in between that first kind of safety and the second. Devin McCourty has started to accumulate big plays this season. The most memorable was when he read Ryan Tannehill‘s eyes, streaked across the field, leaped and tipped the ball intended for Mike Wallace into Marquice Cole‘s waiting arms.
McCourty’s got the big plays, he just doesn’t have the reputation yet.
There’s no better time to earn that reputation than on Sunday night. All eyes will be on the primetime Broncos-Patriots game — Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady. McCourty has his work cut out for him, too. Denver has three dangerous deep targets in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas. McCourty has the ability to challenge Julius Thomas one-on-one, but the safety will be needed back deep, keeping a watchful eye on Demaryius Thomas and Decker.
“You can’t,” McCourty said when asked if he knows which way to shade with Denver sending so many targets deep. “I think that’s why it’s key. We can’t just try to lean to one way. Everyone has to just play it honest.”
Manning, despite rumors of a weakened arm caused by neck surgery, has attempted the fourth-most deep targets in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s thrown 51 passes 20 yards or over and hit on 21 for 730 yards. He’s third in deep completions and second in deep yards. Manning is 15th in deep-ball accuracy (Brady is 19th).
With a banged-up secondary, McCourty’s job becomes even more difficult. Aqib Talib has a hip issue, Kyle Arrington is still dealing with a groin problem and Alfonzo Dennard just had a right knee scope. Talib and Arrington are expected to play, Dennard is not.
That means we’ll see more of rookie Logan Ryan and the veteran, Cole. Both players are slightly undersized and could have trouble staying with Thomas, Thomas and Decker. McCourty will have to hang deep with Steve Gregory, if he can play with a cast over his right thumb, or rookie Duron Harmon.
At the beginning of the season, the Patriots showed confidence in their cornerbacks. There were plays when Bill Belichick would pull the second safety off the field, putting more responsibility on the corners. There’s not going to be a whole lot of that on Sunday night.
McCourty already deserves to be called an “elite” NFL safety, but he’ll have a chance to prove that to a national audience on Sunday night while facing his toughest test to date.