Patriots

McCourty: Patriots focused on taking away deep ball

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McCourty: Patriots focused on taking away deep ball

FOXBORO -- Priority No. 1 for the Patriots secondary this week? Get back.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco burned the Broncos in their AFC Divisional Round win with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones to tie the score in the game's final moments. He also connected with receiver Torrey Smith on touchdown passes of 59 and 32 yards.

Patriots safety Devin McCourty said on Thursday that guarding against those big plays is a big concern for New England's secondary as they prepare to host Flacco and the Ravens in the AFC Championship game on Sunday.

"As all of us as a secondary, we have to realize it's our job to take away those deep passes," McCourty said. "We can't allow them to just throw the ball over our heads so I think all of us have to have that mentality and understand what we're trying to do.

"And I think the biggest thing is that we understand how strong Flacco's arm is because we already know how fast some of their receivers are over there."

Smith is the team's top deep threat. He had six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 3 win over the Patriots, and last week torched one of the NFL's best cornerbacks in Denver's Champ Bailey for 98 yards on three catches.

"He's a fast guy," McCourty said of Smith. "That's not to say he's not physical at all, but I think one of his biggest strengths is his speed. If you give him a step or two, it can turn into three or four. You just have to be aware of how fast he is."

Flacco's other go-to wideout is Anquan Boldin. At 32 years old, and standing at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, he doesn't have the speed of Jones or Smith, but he is a physical presence in intermediate routes and in the running game.

Back in Week 3, McCourty was dealing with Baltimore's receivers as a cornerback. Since cornerback Aqib Talib was acquired in a trade, McCourty has moved to safety and the Patriots defense has cut down on the number of big plays it has allowed.

According to ESPN, in nine games before Talib's arrival, the Patriots allowed 62 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Since then, in eight games, the team has allowed 40 such plays.

"Playing safety, I think you kind of have to be accountable for the whole defense and the coverage as a whole because so much of the communication will be between those two safeties," McCourty said. "Letting the corners know, letting the linebackers know what we're doing, what coverages we're playing and different things like that. Being a captain and a safety, I think a lot of the communication falls on me, and whoever else is playing that other safety."

One of the biggest messages they'll be communicating throughout this week and into Sunday's game: Don't get beat deep.

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”

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After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 

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