One of the main story lines of the Patriots season has been the performance of the defense. They were posting huge numbers and were looking like record setters. Unfortunately, all the numbers were created by opposing offenses. The defense ranked as one of the worst in the league and numerous injuries prevented the unit from performing its best.
One of the players who was expected to step-up and perform was sophomore cornerback Devin McCourty. After an impressive rookie season, McCourty was expected to at least match his performance with solid play in his second year. Unfortunately, the coaching staff decided to put the young player through the gauntlet and placed him on an island against Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson, and Stevie Johnson for a good portion of the first three games. McCourty was torched in all three games and McCourty's poor play could have drawn comparisons to Darius Butler's first couple of games of the 2010 season- and that would include the coaching staff benching the young corner.
Luckily for McCourty, the coaching staff had more faith and kept him on the field. As a result of the bad numbers, though, the defense switched to utilize more zone looks and the defense looked stellar against the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets. McCourty had his two best games of the season and looked ready to reemerge from his early-season slump. Unfortunately, McCourty would have one more game before the Bye Week and it would see him matched up against a healthy Dez Bryant or Miles Austin and a Dallas Cowboys team coming off their own Bye Week. McCourty had a rough outing with poor tackling aplenty.
I've decided to break down a few plays that, in my opinion, show why McCourty struggled on a few plays and reveal a couple of his negative tendencies that can be fixed with practice.
First Play: Dez Bryant for 22 yards.
Devin McCourty is playing 7 yards deep, which is where he should be playing based upon his physical nature and his athleticism.
From the snap, McCourty is stepping backwards. He is positioned on the outside shoulder of Dez Bryant in order to force Bryan to the interior of the field. This will keep Bryant in front of McCourty, as well as in front of any safety help to prevent a big play.
Bryant continues his route while McCourty continues to backpedal and maintains the six-seven yard cushion. By positioning himself on the outside of Bryant, McCourty must be closer to the receiver if he wants to make any sort of play on the player or the ball. However, as of now, Bryant is well-covered by McCourty and the Patriots defense.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys send one of their tight ends as an outlet receiver in the right flat. Gary Guyton moves into coverage in order to prevent a play to the tight end. Romo is facing towards the far side of the field, and you can see Spikes’ head (circled) look at the tight end. The Patriots must have practiced coverage of the emergency outlet receiver.
In the meantime, McCourty still has his cushion on Bryant, but it’s getting smaller. McCourty was backing open with open hips towards the receiver and is able to read Bryant’s hip movements and react by going in the right direction. However, the gap is too large and Bryant has the inside angle.
As a result, McCourty is behind and to the outside of Bryant went he cuts inside. While McCourty is accomplishing his goal of keeping Bryant away from the sidelines, he could be closer to his receiver as he nears the first down marker (the 30 yard line). McCourty needs to be more aware of where the first down markers are located because he has a tendency to play deeper than the first down marker.
As you can see, Guyton committed to covering the tight end, exposing the entire section of the field for an easy Romo pass to Bryant. While Guyton was right to spy the tight end, he needs to be aware that moving to the sideline will make the shallow pass to the receiver much easier without a linebacker in the passing lane. However, it’s clear that McCourty was playing Bryant much too deep on this play and dropped behind the first down marker, giving up a large first down play.
Looking at the whole play, McCourty did a lot of things well- he followed the play of forcing Bryant to the inside and he prevented a potentially much larger play from happening. He played with solid hip placement and read Bryant’s movements. However, he gave much too large of a cushion to one of the rising stars in the NFL and wasn’t able to capitalize on his read. He played deeper than the first down line instead of forcing Bryant to make a move before the marker. As a result, the Cowboys made a big play to move the chains.
Second Play: Miles Austin for 8 yards.
Devin McCourty is positioned at the top of the screen. Miles Austin is lined up across five yards away. McCourty is backpedaling from the snap.
McCourty makes it one and a half yards before he starts to turn his hips and commit to turning his body. The play has yet to really develop and he’s already shown Tony Romo and Miles Austin that he will be defending a deep pattern route.
McCourty is turning his back on Austin and Romo. Romo’s head is facing Austin and McCourty with plenty of space in the pocket. McCourty should still be in his backpedaling phase with his hips open to Romo in order to properly react and make a play on Austin and the ball.
Here, McCourty is overcommitted to the play. Romo has been staring at Austin and Austin stops on a dime and turns into a hitch route. McCourty’s momentum brings him out of the play.
The ball is in the air and McCourty is still 5 yards off of Austin. Easy completion.
These hitch plays hurt McCourty all the time and you’ll start to notice them when they happen. He had this issue as a rookie and it seems to have carried over. Most of the best cornerbacks in the league struggle to defend the hitch because a perfectly timed and executed hitch cannot be defended. A cornerback will always be behind the receiver and unable to make a big stop. As a result, quarterbacks can make a quick throw to get yards.
Third Play: Good defense
McCourty is lined up 7 yards off of his receiver. The Cowboys have three played lined up on the far side and the Patriots react by having Rob Ninkovich act as a bumper, with three defensive backs ready to cover the middle depth.
McCourty drops back a little over a yard while his opposing receiver runs up the field. As a result, the distance between McCourty and the receiver shrinks and McCourty still is prepared with some backward momentum should his receiver try to run behind him. However, since the play was for 3rd and 4 yards, McCourty stuck close to his receiver.
McCourty engages with his receiver at the 40 yard line. He dropped four yards in the same amount of distance that the receiver ran ten. Andre Carter is generating pressure around the edge and Romo throws the ball to one of his near side receivers. However, McCourty smothered his man and eliminated any chance the ball would go in his direction.
Now I’m sure the Cowboys drew the plan to get the ball to their tight end, just like they drew the plan to draw Guyton to the tight and create an open lane for Romo and Bryant in the first example. Still, McCourty displays excellent position to deter any throws in his direction.
McCourty should continue to play seven yards off of the receiver since it allows him to use his athleticism to make a play and not his physicality. However, instead of backpedaling in a mirror to his receiver (ie: dropping back a yard for every yard the receiver runs) and creating a large cushion, McCourty should backpedal with the goal of decreasing the distance between him and the receiver. For example, dropping back one yard for every two the receiver runs will put McCourty in better position to make a play on the ball and the player. From a scheming point of view, the Patriots need to put McCourty in the spot where the receiver is expected to be, not have McCourty run with the receiver to the location.
From a technical point, McCourty has some room for improvement. He needs to watch how early he pivots his hips because it allows the receiver to make an adjustment away from coverage. He must increase his awareness of what depth the opposing quarterback will be throwing the ball and must utilize his football IQ to diagnose the play.
McCourty’s flaws are not just his own. They’re a part of the system and they’re written in the plays. Hopefully, the Patriots can utilize the Bye Week to improve upon the current system in place.