Because of that, he should be primed for a season that can eclipse his accomplishments from 2010, when he was second in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, led the Patriots with seven interceptions, nine forced turnovers (two forced fumbles) and 17 pass defenses. McCourty was also second with 71 solo tackles, fourth with 83 total tackles and second with 11 solo stops on special teams.
Obviously, the string of McCourty's accomplishments has helped him reach that increased level of confidence, but on top of that, he said it's given him the ability to perform with poise, see the game at a slower pace and make more plays.
"I think it's big at the cornerback position," McCourty said. "Just in practice each day, going against these guys and having the confidence to get up there, focus on your techniques, doing your job. Once you're able to do that, then your talents and what you've been working on can be showcased. That confidence gives you the ability to just go out there and play.
"I feel like my job is to go out there and make plays at the cornerback position."
The Patriots were second in the NFL last season with 38 forced turnovers, and McCourty's addition played a major role in that. He far exceeded outside expectations, and he grew with the his as a rookie.
McCourty shined right away, knocking aside Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer's deep attempt for Terrell Owens on the first play of the regular season, and the 2010 first-round draft pick kept progressing throughout the year.
It might have been in Week 7 against San Diego when McCourty truly displayed the on-field aptitude that caused the Patriots to raise their defensive level on a collective basis. McCourty ran stride for stride down the right sideline with wide receiver Patrick Crayton, and the cornerback leaped in front of Crayton to steal the ball at its highest point and intercept his first career pass. From there, McCourty recorded all nine of his forced turnovers in the final 11 games of the Patriots' season.
New England head coach Bill Belichick rarely sticks his cornerbacks on an island. Ty Law mastered the one-on-one ability. Asante Samuel could do it to an extent, but he was much better in zone schemes. McCourty, meanwhile, saw more man-to-man assignments as his rookie season progressed.
When McCourty received that freedom, the rest of the defense changed. The unit transitioned from its vanilla base during a Week 4 victory in Miami, and the scheme only got more complex from there.
Obviously, McCourty wasn't the only player performing at a high level, as linebacker Jerod Mayo, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and safety Patrick Chung elevated their games, as well.
But the Patriots couldn't change their looks with such regularity without so much trust in McCourty on the outside, particularly as they used cornerback Kyle Arrington — who definitely played well — in a starting role for the first extensive playing time in his NFL career. Because quarterbacks didn't challenge McCourty, it gave the Patriots the chance to slide their coverages to the other side of the field, which in turn opened up their possibilities to disguise blitzes and the like.
"As any corner, you want to step on the field and go out there and compete against every receiver," McCourty said. "In our division and the games we have on our schedule this year, we go against some pretty good receivers, so I just think the biggest thing this year is being more confident and going there and try to be a factor in the game and make plays."
The Patriots have continued to evolve their defense throughout training camp, adding the likes of Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter. They got cornerback Leigh Bodden back into the mix after he missed 2010 with a shoulder injury. When the majority of the starters get their first preseason action Thursday night against Tampa Bay, it will give the Patriots' defense a chance to show what they've worked on for the first three weeks of training camp.
In all likelihood, McCourty will debut with a strong performance, matching the high level he's displayed in practice. He said his improvements are tangible, mostly when he assesses his own mistakes — not that there have been many.
With a terrific rookie season in the books, McCourty is ready for a better one in 2011, and it all starts with his increased level of confidence.
"Just remembering where I was at last year in camp, I felt like I was chasing a lot of things just running around," McCourty said. "This year, I'm having a better understanding of football. Even though I make mistakes, I know right away, like, 'Dang,' I know I could have done this different. This is what I saw.' Last year, it took me awhile. I had to go watch the film a couple of times. I think I just have a better understanding of the game."
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