Duron Harmon

Devin McCourty appreciates shift to playing more strong safety in Patriots defense

Devin McCourty appreciates shift to playing more strong safety in Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There was Devin McCourty, three yards off the line of scrimmage, right next to linebacker Kyle Van Noy, making a tackle on Jacquizz Rodgers last Thursday for no gain.

There was McCourty, down in the box again, positioned alongside Dont'a Hightower, posing as a 195-pound 3-4 outside linebacker, chasing down Chris Godwin from behind to make one of his 11 tackles in Tampa Bay.

McCourty has been seeing the game from a different perspective these days. He was arguably the NFL's best free safety in 2016, named a Second-Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler as he helped lead the Patriots defense to a Super Bowl title for the second time in three years as their last line of defense deep down the middle of the field.

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But this year Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have him playing more strong safety, and he's more than OK with it. Whereas when he plays free safety he has to play air-traffic controller, as a strong safety, he's one of the jets.

"You know, free safety, sometimes it gets a little boring back there," McCourty said, "but being up there [in the box] and still being able to be free safety, to me, gives me an advantage to use everything I do – watching film, studying and seeing what teams like to do.

"Usually, when I’m in the middle, I’m trying to alert guys and do it as much as I can that way. But being down, I’m actually getting to use some of the things I see and things that show up from watching film that’s not only just reading the quarterback or route recognition, but it’s actually being in the box, knowing motions and then all those different things like that – just trying to play off that. So, I’ve enjoyed that."

Players in their 30s -- McCourty hit 30 in August -- have long been asked to take on different roles because their physical skill set demands it. Corners become safeties. Down-the-field receivers become possession guys.

That's not the case with McCourty. He's still one of the fastest players on the team, as evidenced by his running past his teammates to chase down DeSean Jackson from behind on a 41-yard catch-and-run that was very nearly an 89-yard touchdown.

But as Duron Harmon has become more of an every-down option as the team's free safety -- he's playing in more than 80 percent of the defense's snaps, up from 50 percent last season -- that has freed up McCourty to drop down, cover tight ends, keep an eye on backs in the passing game, and blow up the occasional run.

Belichick has long touted McCourty as among the most dependable tacklers he's ever coached, and he's lived up to that billing this season with 42 tackles, good for seventh in the league. He's on pace to end up with more than 130, which would be a career-high. Easily.

"It’s been fun running around, making tackles," McCourty said. "This year I’ve been in a couple different roles where it’s not as bad as it sounds [for a defense], like I’m 15 yards deep on every play and end up with 42 tackles. I’ve been down in the box a little bit more and been able to be around the ball, so I’ve enjoyed it."

In a way, McCourty is the hybrid who bridges the gap between New England's other top safeties. While Harmon is the rangier defender, Patrick Chung is the in-the-box veteran who can check tight ends as well as slot receivers and make an impact in the run game. Between the three of them, McCourty explained, they're able to figure out on a snap-to-snap basis how best to react to an offensive look.

"I think the good thing about all three of us is we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and we all know each other’s well," he said. "So, there’s times where the defense calls for one of us to be here or the other, and we’ll switch positions in the defense just because of the formation they come out in. We’ll say, ‘All right, you’re better at that. You’re better at this. All right, switch.’

"I think us being in the same system for a couple years together now allows us to do that really without even thinking. It’s just natural. Obviously, film and being out there on the practice field definitely helps, too. But now I think we’re all so comfortable with playing with each other that it’s easy for us to just interchange roles sometimes."

Though the Patriots defense will continue to change after struggling through the first month of the season, McCourty's shift to playing some more strong safety seems here to stay. It's been part of the plan on a weekly basis.

He'll still see his old perch as a single-high safety. And he'll split the deep part of the field with Harmon occasionally. But if he's asked to creep down into the more crowded area of the field to take away shorter routes or factor into the Patriots run defense, he's proven he's willing and able to execute that role as well.

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Giardi: Time for Gilmore to earn his keep . . . now

Giardi: Time for Gilmore to earn his keep . . . now

TAMPA, Fla. -- As we were kicking around the idea of the Patriots possibly running the table and finishing 19-0 this spring and summer, we pointed to a number of positions or groupings being the best in the league or at least in the conversation.

Quarterback? Check. Wide receiver? Check. Tight end? Check. Secondary? Check.

The quarterback, a fellow by the name of Tom Brady, has lived up to that expectation. He’s on pace for 5,700 yards, 40 touchdowns and no interceptions. That doesn’t suck. The wide receiver spot took a hit when Julian Edelman tore his ACL and Malcolm Mitchell re-injured his chronically bad knee and landed on IR (with the chance to return), but points and big plays haven’t been a problem from the position. Rob Gronkowski enters Thursday’s game with Tampa Bay dealing with a quad issue that may limit him, but in each of the last three weeks, he’s been a beast, looking very much like the player who’s dominated the league when he’s been healthy.

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That leaves the secondary . . . 

In no way, shape or form should the defensive backfield look as awful as it has. There’s loads of experience there, not just in this league, but in this system. They return nine defensive backs who played on last year's Super Bowl-winning team: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Pat Chung, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner and Brandon King. Yes, the latter duo is, and has been, special teams only, but they attend meetings, have to know coverages and checks just like the guys that get the lion share of the snaps.

That brings us the one newcomer in the room and on the field: Stephon Gilmore. His resume is impressive. He went to the Pro Bowl a season ago with the Bills, intercepting five passes, and he was durable enough to play in all but a dozen games over his first five years in the league.

Gilmore has a first-round pedigree, coming into the league back in 2012 as the 10th overall pick. His collegiate battles at South Carolina with another high pick, Alshon Jeffrey, are legendary. His old ball coach, Steve Spurrier, said it was Gilmore’s commitment to South Carolina as the state’s Mr. Football that let the program take off, later influencing fellow Mr. Footballs -- Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Lattimore -- to stay in state. Gilmore started every game in college, even playing some quarterback in the “WildCock” offense. He left school with a 3.2 GPA. He’s not just some guy with fast feet. He has the brains to process all of it, on both sides of the ball.

Until his arrival in Foxboro, that is.

Through four games, Gilmore is the 71st-rated cornerback on the analytic website Pro Football Focus. That’s generous. The site doesn’t take into account the miscommunications that have plagued the Pats veteran secondary, and the fact that Gilmore has been in the middle of far too many of those mental errors. I’ve outlined those mistakes on Monday Night Patriots and on my Twitter timeline.

Oh sure, he’s not the only one. Chung has been guilty, and seen his playing time decrease because of it. McCourty hasn’t played to his level. Butler got his playing time reduced in Week 2 versus New Orleans. Rowe was completely lost Sunday before re-injuring his groin.

But Gilmore sticks out like a sore thumb that just got smashed by a hammer. He is the X factor, replacing the mentally sound Logan Ryan this season. Ryan’s a player that doesn’t have Gilmore’s physical gifts but was a terrific communicator and sound tackler. Gilmore is lacking in both areas so far.

That’s why you have to believe the constant harping on communication issues by the leaders of that secondary, McCourty and Harmon, are directed at Gilmore first and foremost. As if they’re telling us it’s him but just not saying his name. Why else would the coaching staff almost immediately strip down the coverages and checks after Week 1? Why else would Harmon say “it can’t get no simpler than it is” after Sunday’s failures versus Carolina? That McCourty --- always measured, regardless of the scenario -- was emotional after the loss, and called it embarrassing? McCourty didn’t just forget how to run the secondary, but appears distracted on the field at times, trying to get Gilmore in the right place or in the right call. Ditto for Harmon. Chung is one of the team’s smarter players. Suddenly he doesn’t know how to cover bunch formations?

No, the common denominator is Gilmore. Until he figures out that communication entails not only talking but listening, what should have been one of the best secondaries in football is going to continue to get gashed for big plays and the pressure, already building, will only get worse.

Ball’s in your court, No. 24, but it won’t stay there for long. Bill Belichick has never been afraid to make hard decisions -- he sat Gilmore down to begin the third quarter Sunday before Rowe’s injury forced him to go back to his free-agent prize -- and one can only imagine what lengths the coach will go to if the 27-year old Gilmore doesn’t figure it out and figure it out soon. 

McCourty: Patriots defensive backs working overtime to make corrections

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McCourty: Patriots defensive backs working overtime to make corrections

FOXBORO -- Patriots defensive backs didn't sugarcoat it after their Week 4 loss to the Panthers. Maybe they need to watch more film. Maybe they need to meet more. Maybe they need to work harder. What happened against Carolina, they insisted, can't happen again.

Devin McCourty said on Tuesday that the secondary has been working overtime since then. Extra film sessions. Extra meetings. They even did a walkthrough before Tuesday's walkthrough.

"That's all it's been. That's all it's been," McCourty said of the extra work. "We were able to watch film in there. We just finished watching film again. We were able to walk through before the walkthrough. 

"One thing I know about here is when things aren't going right, we're not going to sit around and hope it gets better. We're going to attack it and do everything we can to make it better. We've met. We've walked through. We walked through again. We gotta keep doing that and then we gotta go play well Sunday. 

"We're not sitting around. We're not talking about a team that's been sitting around scratching our heads for four weeks. We've been getting after it. We've been watching film, doing things. We need to go play well on game day, too. That's a part of being a good football team, good players, is that when it's time to go play and turn what you practice what you watch into game reality, we gotta go do that. 

"To me, I'm anxious and excited about that part of it. We don't have a group that doesn't know hard work and just wants to come in and sit around. We have a hard-working group of guys, but it's time to show up, make plays and play better."

Part of playing better, McCourty explained is sticking to your assignment. He admitted that when there are issues, sometimes players may feel as though they have to do something in order to make up for whatever it is the player next to him might (or might not) do. 

"That's very dangerous," he said. "That's why we're meeting. That's why we're going over things. So that it doesn't turn into that where now a guys unsure of what's going to happen so he's trying to do this and that. That'll never work . . . 

"That's why Monday's so key. Maybe the next team's not like that team, but maybe that comes up later in the season or maybe it comes back up next week. That's why it's important to correct those things for that reason. So we're not sitting there [and] there's a guy saying, 'Man, I remember this formation, we got this last week, and I didn't know what was going to happen and I still don't.' That's why you wanna go over it. That's when you say, 'All right, we messed it up on this play but the next time it comes up, let's get it right so we can still play fast.' "

McCourty said there's no drastic changes coming to the Patriots secondary in terms of how players playing in that area of the field communicate. But he acknowledged that the manner in which the team has played of late will change. 

It has to.

"I think everything in football is correctable," McCourty said. "Especially if you have a group that you feel you have some good football players. We have a talented group, so I always think that's correctable. 

"I also think that you watch the NFL, you see teams that are last go to first. You see that all the time. It's because of putting the time and the work in. As I sit here and say it's correctable, but it's up to us to correct it. It's not going to just correct itself. It's really on us, getting it done. I think we're on the right path. But like I always say, being on the right path, you don't know until you go out there and do it in the game."