McCourty the defensive rookie of this game

McCourty the defensive rookie of this game

By Mary Paoletti

DETROIT -- Thanksgiving football has been tradition for Devin McCourty for as long as he can remember.

"I think as a kid everybody watches these games. You see guys eatin' turkey legs and all that,'' he said, all smiles, on Thursday.

McCourty had every reason to be especially cheerful this year. It's the cornerback's first NFL season and he's already making his mark in the league.

"Just to be a part of it,'' he explained, "when there's a bunch of people at home watching, including my family, and all the young kids that are watching this game. Hopefully they'll remember when they watched the Patriots and Lions play on Thanksgiving. ''

The memories he'll have of this Turkey Day -- of his Patriots' 45-25 win over Detroit -- will be unique.

Many watching were probably eager to catch the stylings of Detroit's potential defensive rookie of the year, Ndamukong Suh. Despite how far McCourty has come in 12 weeks, how reliable he's been for the now 9-2 Patriots, the young corner hasn't gotten nearly the volume of attention as Suh.

Teammate Brandon Meriweather expected as much.

"Suh's a great player,'' Meriweather said in the postgame. "He's done a lot in this league as a young player and I think Devin came in playing in his shadow. Suh was a higher pick, so you expect more from that higher pick and he gets more of the spotlight.''

Nothing too surprising there. McCourty was a first-round pick but Suh was drafted second overall. And it's Suh's eight sacks -- best among rookies and tied for sixth in the NFL -- that cause a bigger headache for opposing teams. He's a planning nightmare during the week.

But it was McCourty who caused more problems on game day.

He feasted on Detroit's passing game, recording two tackles, two helpers and two interceptions. The Thanksgiving effort only heaped onto his already impressive tallies. McCourty is now tied in the rookie top spot for pickoffs (five) and is second in combined tackles and assists (61).

Talk to him once and you'll be impressed with his competitiveness. It's earnest. McCourty knows he wasn't drafted as a franchise cornerstone like Ndamukong Suh. He also knows that a roster spot with a team like the Patriots had to be earned and that the battle doesn't end when you make it.

"Coming in, one of the biggest things I was nervous was just living up to the expectations of the older guys,'' McCourty said. "You come on the team and you've got Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork and those guys come out and play at a certain level.

"So coming out and playing as a rookie, that was probably the biggest thing I looked at, was to kind of match how they prepared and how they came out. And make sure I was ready to go and not be that weak link on the defense."

The rookie corner should exhale a little bit. Not only is he one of the most important players in New England's defense, but Wilfork is one of his biggest fans.

"We all have high expectations for everybody. But for a rookie, that's special,'' the defensive captain said. "McCourty's been doing a hell of a job. He's been doing everything we've asked him to do and more. He's been making the plays, he's been studying. He's every bit of what you want. He's every bit a New England Patriot. He's so young. To have it that young, that's a gift.

"Suh is a helluva player. Coming out, I thought he was the best defensive linemen and I made a comment that I wished he could play with me,'' Wilfork laughed. "But I'm definitely pulling for my guy.''

McCourty's making a good case to enter the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. He seemed to alter Detroit QB Shaun Hill's targeting on Thursday. Hill's prize receiver, Calvin Johnson, was expected to do damage in this game. He's a monster match up, a 6-foot-5, 236 pound receiver unapologetically dubbed ''Megatron.'' Even on a 2-9 team, Johnson has elevated the Lions to sixth in the NFL in passing.

Entering Week 12, Megatron had 725 yards and 10 touchdowns. He caught just 4 balls for 81 yards on New England's watch. If Hill did throw his way, Patriots corner Kyle Arrington was likely on coverage. When he wasn't? Well, check out McCourty's first interception.


"You gotta beat that guy to the ball. His size . . . he's the biggest and most athletic human I've ever seen,'' McCourty said of Johnson. "As soon as I saw it released and that ball was in the air, I thought, 'I have to jump before he jumps because if we just at the same time I'll just be another clip on his highlight reel.' "

The reel instead is all McCourty: Shaun Hill takes the snap, drops back and looks down Johnson deep right. McCourty sees the pass coming in instead of outside and snatches the ball out of the air.

He ran 23 yards before being pulled out of bounds. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said at his postgame press conference that "Devin's interception was a huge play" and coach Bill Belichick agreed that it "swung the game around.'' No kidding. That pickoff didn't just lead to the touchdown that tied the game at 17-17, it created a major momentum shift in New England's favor.

The final post-interception push? Seven more points for Detroit and 28 for the Patriots.

Ndamukong Suh's notched four combined tackles and a huge sack of Brady on third-and-6. His play wasn't game-changing, though. No, despite the hype, this Thanksgiving Day rookie showdown belonged to Devin McCourty. Not one he's likely to forget.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Hightower on Collins: 'He makes it a lot easier for me'


Hightower on Collins: 'He makes it a lot easier for me'

FOXBORO -- Dont'a Hightower is coming off of one of the best games of his career, and he did it while running the Patriots defensive huddle without the help of his on-the-field partner at the linebacker level.

"It’s a lot more fluent having Jamie [Collins] out there," Hightower said on Wednesday. "A lot of the times we coordinate things a lot together. I usually take care of the front, he takes care of the secondary. We have our own way of doing things. Sometimes Jamie is just like, ‘No, you go ahead and you just make the calls and I’ll play off of you.’

"It helps having him out there. I mean, he does everything so he makes it a lot easier for me. Anytime I can have him out there with me, I’m 100 percent having him out there."

Hightower has plenty of experience playing without Collins, however, and Collins is accustomed to having to go without Hightower. Both had issues staying on the field in 2015, and although it's early, that trend has continued this season.

Hightower missed Weeks 2 and 3 due to a knee injury, and Collins missed Week 6 with a hip issue, meaning the duo has been available to coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia only three times this year. 

Last season the pair was active for 10 of 18 games, including both playoff games, and during a Week 5 win over the Cowboys, Hightower played just nine snaps. Collins dealt with an illness that kept him out for four games last season, and Hightower, as has been the case for much of his career, was limited by (and often played through) myriad ailments.

Both are vital to the long-term success of the Patriots defense in 2016, but it's been hit-or-miss as to when they'll be out there to play off of one another as Hightower described.

"Our linebackers, Jamie, Dont'a, they're two of the best in the league," said safety Duron Harmon following Hightower's dominating performance against the Bengals in Week 6. "Any time we can have those guys out there, they just continue to create havoc.

"They make plays, they make it easier for us, especially me. The quarterback can't look off as long when Dont'a's all in his face -- him and Jamie. Having him on the field is a plus. And when you get both of them on the field it's a double-plus."

And therein lies the issue: Having both Hightower and Collins out there together has felt like a luxury rather than the norm. 

At some point, the Patriots will have to make decisions as to what they'll do at the linebacker level for the foreseeable future. Both Hightower and Collins are slated to hit free-agency, and their durability will certainly factor into the equation when the Patriots make them offers to stick in New England.

Until then, though, both will work to be available as often as possible -- both for their team's sake and their own as they eye new deals -- where they can stress opposing offenses at a degree to which most linebacker combinations around the league can only aspire. 

"With us out there we’re able to do a lot of different things, [we have] a lot of versatility," Hightower said. "So hopefully we can both stay out there."

Hightower was removed from the Patriots injury report last week, meaning he's able to take on a full workload in practice. Collins, meanwhile, continues to be limited in practice, and his availability for Sunday's game with the Steelers is not yet known. In place of Collins, sixth-round rookie Elandon Roberts earned the bulk of the playing time against the Bengals last week. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo saw a season-high eight defensive snaps in the win. 

Thursday's Patriots-Steelers practice report: Garoppolo off the list


Thursday's Patriots-Steelers practice report: Garoppolo off the list

FOXBORO -- The Patriots injury report shrunk again on Thursday. 

One day after Rob Gronkowski was removed from the injury report, the Patriots were able to take backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo off. 

Garoppolo injured his shoulder in a Week 2 win over the Dolphins and then missed the following two games, giving way to rookie third-rounder Jacoby Brissett. He has been limited in practice ever since being driven into the ground by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Here is Thursday's full practice participation/injury report for the Patriots and Steelers:


TE Martellus Bennett (ankle)
RB Brandon Bolden (knee)
LB Jamie Collins (hip)
WR Julian Edelman (foot)
DL Woodrow Hamilton (shoulder)
LB Shea McClellin (concussion)
WR Malcolm Mitchell (hamstring)
LB Elandon Roberts (ankle)
DL Vincent Valentine (back)


T Marcus Gilbert (ankle)
DE Cameron Heyward (hamstring)
QB Ben Roethlisberger (left knee)
S Shamarko Thomas (groin)
C Cody Wallace (knee)
WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder)
RB DeAngelo Williams (knee)

S Robert Golden (foot)
S Michael Mitchell (knee)
LB Ryan Shazier (knee)