Secondary looks to be 'strength of the defense'

Secondary looks to be 'strength of the defense'
August 4, 2013, 11:45 am
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FOXBORO – Rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce was split out to Tom Brady’s right during Saturday morning’s intrasquad scrimmage. Across from Boyce was cornerback Aqib Talib who’s been having an outstanding camp.

Talib gave Boyce a cushion and, at the snap, Boyce released easily with Talib playing off. About 15 yards downfield, with Boyce still headed deeper, Talib undercut as if anticipating Boyce was about to break off his route to the inside and take a timing throw from Brady.

Weird mistake. Brady, as one would expect, picked up on the gaffe and lasered a throw toward Boyce. Suddenly, Devin McCourty appeared. Coming at a gallop and arriving in perfect time, he had excellent coverage as Brady’s pass sailed a little too high and bounced incomplete out of bounds.

There are three possible scenarios for what actually happened in the Patriots secondary on that play. And all were good. One, Talib really screwed up and McCourty was on the spot to cover for him. Two, Talib knew he had the deep help from McCourty because they discussed it and Talib felt emboldened to roll the dice knowing he’d have his safety friend to bail him out. Three, it was all unspoken and McCourty knew by repetition and formation what Talib might do there and was ready to react when Talib made his gamble.

That’s the way it’s supposed to look back there in the secondary. Four – or five – minds melded together, everyone liberated to go full speed knowing he’s got his assignment and – even more importantly – his secondary mate knows his as well.

I asked McCourty on Saturday if, when he drives to the stadium in the morning, he feels a sense of calm knowing he’ll be at one safety, Adrian Wilson will be next to him, Aqib Talib will be at one corner and Alfonzo Dennard will be at the other.

“It is a little bit (calming),” McCourty admitted. “It feels unique just to be back and have a bunch of the same guys back. Since I’ve been here we’ve had a bunch of different matches – offensive guys playing defense … for the last couple months we’ve had some certainty. It feels good. Guys, I think, are working together so it’s not just an individual playing well, it’s a group and there’s a core group. I enjoy it and I think we’re getting better because of that.”

We’ve spent plenty of time this summer noting Patriots’ draft gaffes and their disastrous dice roll on character when it came to Aaron Hernandez.

More frequently, though, they get it right when picking young men they believe can become team leaders. Devin McCourty is the embodiment of that. A first round pick in 2010 – the same draft as Hernandez – McCourty is one of the team’s hardest workers and most resilient players.

In three seasons, he’s been a rookie Pro Bowler, miscast as a press corner in his second season, prone to great plays and awful ones in his third season and moved around the secondary like a long couch in a skinny room.

He took the slings and arrows from fans and the media with dignity and kept showing up and trying to do what the person whose opinion mattered most – Bill Belichick – asked him to.

Now, he’s in the spot that seems to fit him best – free safety – and he’s got a dependable and experienced veteran in Adrian Wilson plugged in next to him.

Instead of watching the Patriots pass defense through the cracks in their fingers, Patriots fans may actually look forward to the result when an opposing quarterback drops back.

“Our goal every year is to be the strength of the defense,” McCourty said of the secondary. “No matter how well they play up front, they can’t stop you if a team decides to pass the ball every time.

“They can get a great pass rush but if we don’t cover well, the quarterback will just get rid of it before they get there,” he added. “The key is to be a strength of this defense. To be the top (unit) on this defense, we don’t care about that. We just want to hold up our end.”

Part of McCourty’s end of things is being ready if they ask him to play corner instead of safety which he did for a while on Friday.

“I like wherever they put me,” he said with a smile, saying additionally that it is a challenge to play both secondary spots. “It’s always challenging. That’s one of the reasons I’m playing multiple positions, to make sure I can keep playing both and staying fresh on it. I wish I could say it was like riding a bike, but you need to keep getting reps. It’s technique and viewing it from a corner standpoint and a safety standpoint.”

McCourty shed his red non-contact jersey at Saturday’s practice and should be full-go in the preseason games. With stability all around him – particularly with the respected veteran Wilson next to him – the Patriots secondary could make a leap.

“I just try to go out and lead by example,” McCourty said. “I’m a guy that’s been in the system a good amount of time like Kyle (Arrington) so I’m trying to go out and help everyone out. Adrian is a new guy but him being in the league so long and the things he’s accomplished, leader comes with his name so he is a definite leader for us. I have a great deal of respect for him, he has a great deal of respect for me. We just keep working together and we bring what we bring to the table we have a chance to be a good group this year.”