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.