CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For a moment, Jason McCourty looked at home just off the right hash. Casual, even.
He was a free safety in his team’s goal-line package in the third quarter of the Friday night preseason loss to the Panthers. It was a new position for him and if not for his jersey number, he might’ve been mistaken for his twin brother Devin, who made the move from corner to safety six years ago.
At the snap, McCourty gave a quick glance to the two receivers to his right. No help needed there. It was a run. He bounced on the balls of his feet for an instant and when the run leaked outside, he burst downhill. McCourty got to running back Cameron Artis-Payne unimpeded and corralled him to the ground a yard behind the line of scrimmage.
“Typically down there, had I been at corner I'd be guarding somebody,” McCourty said. “Just having that opportunity, I'm kind of a free player, freelancing a little bit. But that was one thing, even at corner I was always a confident tackler so from that standpoint of playing safety I think that comes a little natural, not being afraid to get down there, get your nose in and make tackles.”
McCourty came into the game as a corner — Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe were the starters on the outside — but late in the first half he saw some time at safety, and that continued into the third quarter. The Patriots played single-high and split-safety coverages with McCourty in, and he admitted after that it was the first time he’d ever seen game action at that spot.
He had practiced at safety while at Rutgers. He talked with the Browns about seeing some time there last season, but it never happened.
Through training camp, McCourty was used as a corner — at times getting reps with the top defensive unit — but he said he started practicing at safety this week.
The more you can do, the saying goes. And with McCourty, a shot at safety is yet another opportunity for him to try to carve out a role for himself on the Patriots roster that is not yet locked in. He’s also seen time in the kicking game, playing with the top kickoff unit the past two weeks.
Having a chance to play a new position, McCourty said, was encouraging.
“It's exciting,” he said, “to get a chance to have that vantage point...Over the years, you pick up a lot of football so it's a new challenge for me to say, ‘Can I do this? Can I excel at it? It’s been fun so far.”
McCourty’s willingness to tackle, his experience reading opposing offenses, and his understanding of core defensive principles make him a logical fit as a last-line-of-defense option.
Bill Belichick is known for taking advantage of player's versatility and utilizing it to build depth.
“A lot of playing players in different positions in preseason relates to building depth on our roster," Belichick said on his Saturday conference call. "Sometimes players have to be ready to back up at that position or play at that position. I think it was a good experience and hopefully, whether he does or doesn’t play safety down the road it might have given him have a better understanding going forward.”
McCourty said after the game that he’s long done his best to understand every secondary position in every scheme he’s played, including the safety spots, but “actually having to play it is a different story. A totally new challenge in itself...
“Totally different angles. More communicating. More awareness. Corner is just physical. You gotta be able to guard the man across from you. Safety is not as much one-on-one, but defending the entire field and making sure guys are lined up and getting the calls and all the things of that nature.”
He added: “I think you need reps and experience at it. It's one thing to know, ‘OK, on this play I have deep half. On this play, I have deep middle.’ But being able to go out and execute if the running back breaks loose, coming up there from that angle, having to make tackles or breaking out from the middle of the field, it's just different. Getting a chance to be back there a few times in practice, and being back there in the game [Friday] will help me progress see the things I need to work on.”
McCourty is in an interesting spot in that the corner position for the Patriots looks crowded. Gilmore and Rowe are the top options. Jonathan Jones looks like the leader for the top “star” job in the slot, and second-round pick Duke Dawson (out Friday with an injury) will make the 53-man roster for Week 1 if he’s healthy enough. Cyrus Jones got back on the field in a game Friday for the first time since tearing his ACL last summer and he could grab a roster spot as a return man and reserve defender. Rookies JC Jackson and Keion Crossen have impressed in spurts, as has second-year man Ryan Lewis.
It certainly wasn’t a perfect safety debut for McCourty. He was on the back end and chasing from a help position in the middle of the field when the Panthers hit Curtis Samuel over Crossen for a 31-yard pickup early in the third quarter. But if the Patriots think McCourty is a legitimate depth option at a couple of secondary positions, and if the Patriots like his ability to contribute in the kicking game, he could push for an all-purpose type of role to start the season.
The irony of McCourty’s safety stint is that he’s teased Devin, who was drafted by the Patriots in the first round as a corner and made a Pro Bowl at that spot, for making the same position switch years ago. Playful brotherly ribbing.
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On Friday, Jason said Devin had more than his fair share of coaching points awaiting him on the sidelines between every Patriots defensive series.
“Cool opportunity,” Jason said, “to have a guy like him, a guy like [Patrick] Chung, Duron [Harmon], who've been doing it for a while in this defense, to be able to ask them questions and different things of that nature. Still trying to learn that position, still playing corner and doing both of them, just trying to excel at them for this team.”