FOXBORO, Mass. — Only four NFL teams have more than four interceptions this season. Devin McCourty has four by himself.
McCourty, the 32-year-old leader of the New England Patriots’ secondary, is off to the best start of his 10-year NFL career. He’s picked off one pass in each of the Patriots’ first four games, equaling his interception total from the previous four seasons and tying Hall of Famer Mike Haynes’ franchise record for most consecutive games with at least one INT.
What’s behind this remarkable streak? Why are passes suddenly landing in McCourty’s mitts on a weekly basis?
According to the safety, the explanation is a simple one.
“The ball is finding me,” McCourty said Wednesday. “I was talking to (Philadelphia Eagles safety) Malcolm Jenkins last night. He texts me, and he’s like, ‘Man, you’ve got four interceptions.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, man. For a lot of years, the ball didn’t find me a lot.’ You could be in good position, you could play good football, but the ball doesn’t find you. And then sometimes you go out there and, you know, Steph (Gilmore) tips one to me. I got an overthrow, I got another overthrow, and one where the quarterback never saw me.
“So I wouldn’t say they’re, like, the hardest plays you ever make in your career, but sometimes (if) you keep putting yourself in the right position, the ball will find you. Sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ve just got to keep trying to play good football.”
Sure, good fortune has been a factor in McCourty’s run of robberies. But being in the right place at the right time is a skill in itself.
On three of McCourty’s interceptions, he’s been positioned as a single-high deep safety, a role that requires him to read the quarterback and cover huge amounts of ground. That was the case in Week 1, when he started his backpedal at the 30-yard line, turned to sprint at the 15 and beat James Washington to the ball’s landing spot at the goal line, preventing what could have been a Pittsburgh Steelers touchdown.
McCourty’s arrival bailed out slot corner Jonathan Jones, who fell while chasing Washington in man coverage.
One week later, McCourty hauled in an interception off a Gilmore tip during a blowout win over the Miami Dolphins. The following week, he benefited from a baffling decision by young New York Jets quarterback Luke Falk and settled under a pass that landed more than 10 yards away from the closest Jets receiver.
Against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, McCourty exploited the poor judgment of another inexperienced passer. Josh Allen tried to heave one deep to wideout Zay Jones on Buffalo’s opening possession, and McCourty, who was covering the opposite half of the field on the play, ranged over to undercut the route.
With McCourty at the forefront, the Patriots have fielded the NFL’s premier ball-hawking defense this season. They’ve picked off 10 passes through four games — no other team has more than five — and racked up a league-high 39 passes defended, six more than the second-place Bills.
For context, the Patriots tallied 18 interceptions in the entire 2018 season — and still ranked third in the league in that category. The record for picks in a season by a Bill Belichick-coached Pats team in 29, set by the Super Bowl-winning 2003 squad. This current group is on pace for 40, which would break the post-merger NFL record of 39 held by the 1986 San Francisco 49ers.
McCourty and linebacker Jamie Collins (three, including a pick-six) rank 1-2 in the NFL in interceptions entering Week 5, with cornerback J.C. Jackson adding two of his own and Gilmore notching one, which he returned 54 yards for a touchdown against Miami.
“I think me having interceptions shows how good this unit is,” McCourty said. “I’m able to play a lot of things just on being free and knowledge because our corners are so good. I don’t have to worry about anything. I have complete faith in what they’re doing, and I think a lot of us being on the same page allows us to do some things out there as a group that you can’t always do, unless you have a lot of guys that are studying film together and smart enough to go out there and try to do some things.”
The Patriots will have a golden opportunity to pad these stats Sunday against a Washington Redskins team that’s tossed a league-high seven interceptions through four games (tied with the Bills and Dolphins) and could be starting rookie Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. Of the 17 passes Haskins threw last week in his NFL debut, three were picked off.