Patriots

McCourty the defensive rookie of this game

McCourty the defensive rookie of this game

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

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.

Spectacular.

"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 mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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