Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty struggled against the Washington Redskins. There's no doubt about that. He allowed big plays all over the field. Throughout the season, McCourty's been beaten by all quality levels of quarterbacks. However, how McCourty has been beaten shouldn't be a surprise- it's more a result of the film review of opposing teams.
Unlike last season, McCourty now has over a full season of NFL film for teams to review and the results shouldn't be surprising. McCourty is consistently beaten on the same routes. Opposing teams understand this and are attacking McCourty with those same routes throughout the game. In addition, poor safety play and coaching decisions have left McCourty to fend for himself- and there haven't been coaching adjustments to fix this problem.
Last season, McCourty played with safety help over the top. The safety played at varying levels of depth, but whether they were five yards deeper or fifteen yards back, McCourty always had safety help- and the safety's job was "protect McCourty over the top". The safety could adjust as the play developed, but they were always in position to help McCourty should the ball be thrown over the top.
This safety allowed McCourty to be more aggressive and be more fearless. If you've watched him this season, you can easily see that he's playing off of his man more (part of the defensive scheme) and that he hasn't been as aggressive at attacking the ball. He's been in the area of the pass, and he's able to hit the receiver as soon as the ball arrives, but he's been unable to attack the ball itself.
Opposing teams have realized the weaknesses of McCourty. They understand that he hasn't been playing with as much safety help this season and they've been sure to attack him over the top when he does have the help. They also have the film to see which routes can consistently beat McCourty and they've been doing them over and over again.
I decided to look through tape of the Patriots against the Detroit Lions from last Thanksgiving to illustrate a point. That's a game where everyone can look and say, "McCourty was exceptional that day." He defended Calvin Johnson and he had a great day with interceptions. Well- there's still film to examine and his weaknesses are on full display- as are ways to fix them.
I chose a play from each quarter to show how he played as the game developed (sorry about the quality of the images).
2010 Week 12 - New England Patriots at Detroit Lions
Play 1: McCourty is playing tight coverage on Calvin Johnson. The Lions have no one in the backfield, so the safety help (James Sanders) is sitting 15+ yards off the play in order to see the play develop and in order to prevent any big throw.
McCourty is highlighted in orange and the arrow is pointing to the safety help. The safety isn't just protecting McCourty, but also all the potential deep throws. Calvin Johnson's goal is to run up the field and try to make a head fake to get open.
As you can see, Johnson has his head turned as he's looking for the ball, but McCourty is still playing tight coverage. He knows that if he's beaten, the safety (still the arrow) is right behind him to clean up the mess. You could say that McCourty is interfering with Johnson's route, but he's not drawing contact- he's more impeding than interfering. He's redirecting Johnson away from his planned route and, because his body is framed and angled, funneling Johnson to the sideline, Johnson only has one way to run. Johnson's not allowed to run out of bounds and McCourty has him trapped on the sideline. As long as McCourty's body is angled to prevent Johnson from cutting back inside, Johnson has no chance to make a catch.
The ball drops incomplete, out of bounds, and you can still see McCourty framed against the sideline. This was also to show that Sanders was in position, right over the top, to make a tackle if necessary. This is a good example of how McCourty can play cornerback if he has help over the top.
With the safety help, McCourty has the confidence and the leeway to be more aggressive and to attack Calvin Johnson. McCourty isn't sitting back and trying to read the opposing route as he's been doing all season- he dictating the route. McCourty's in position to decide the route, and that's the power of aggressive, physical man coverage. Give McCourty a safety and allow him to redirect the runner at the line.
Play 2: Second quarter, McCourty is playing off his man, as we've seen so often this season. He has safety help over the top (arrow). This is a route that has McCourty's number and has his entire career. The hitch route. Look at McCourty defend this against Miles Austin and the Cowboys from this season (second play). Same problem and opposing quarterbacks will be able to do it until McCourty figure out how to stop it. This isn't a problem of the coaches or of the safeties- this is McCourty's problem and he has to fix it.
McCourty is circled in orange and safety help is over the top (arrow). McCourty is playing seven yards off of his man, which is perfectly reasonable. You can read his stance and see that he's leaning backwards and is ready to backpedal and defend the deep route. All of his weight is shifting backwards, which makes it difficult to come forward and attack the ball.
As planned, McCourty is running down the field and gives too much space. Just like the play against Miles Austin, McCourty over-committed to his route and revealed his defense early, allowing the receiver to adjust. McCourty has a habit of turning his body and running down the field when giving a fairly large cushion to the receiver. This allows the receiver to recognize the coverage and adjust . A simple hitch as a result of McCourty revealing his coverage.
In order to fix this, McCourty just has to stop showing his coverage. He needs to disguise it. He cannot commit by turning his body before the ball is in the air or before the receiver commits to his route. If McCourty is allowing a seven yard cushion, he can slowly backpedal to gain momentum, while allowing the receiver to close the distance. If McCourty moves at the same pace as the receiver, then the receiver will still have a seven yard cushion to alter their route. Instead, McCourty must sit and allow the receiver to show his hand. Patience and skill that comes with experience- and McCourty needs to start practicing immediately.
Play 3: This is McCourty's interception of a pass directed towards Calvin Johnson. It also shows the value of a safety over the top.
You can see McCourty (orange circle) facing Calvin Johnson with pretty much man coverage. Safety help (arrow) is over the top and is clearly beyond the far hashmarks. He's there to help with Johnson. Johnson's route is a straight shot up the sideline, where he has to throw a fake in order to gain separation from McCourty. Johnson makes a move and McCourty's sitting in his backpocket, while Johnson has open field in front of him.
Poor ball placement allows McCourty to make a play on the ball. It seems that McCourty hasn't had the same luck as last season. Still, even if the ball was better thrown to make a completion, James Sanders (arrow) is in perfect position to make the stop and perhaps even jar the ball loose upon contact for an incomplete pass. Still, McCourty's in aggressive man coverage and he has a safety in position to help him over the top.
This play yields the same message as the first play- give him a play and let him be more aggressive. The difference between McCourty being aggressive with safety help and McCourty being cautious without safety help is actually a negative for the team.
Say McCourty is aggressive and there is safety help- best case scenario, McCourty is aggressive and is in position to make a play on the ball. Worst case scenario, McCourty is burned and is out of position because of his aggression- but the safety should still be helping over the top to prevent the play as soon as the ball is completed.
If McCourty continues to play cautious, what can happen? Best case scenario, the quarterback throws a bad ball and it's incomplete? With so many qualified quarterbacks in the league, that doesn't seem like a solid foundation for a defensive scheme. Worst case scenario, McCourty's playing cautious and keeping the player in front of him with a large enough cushion for the receiver to make the play and have space for yards after the catch- which is exactly what's been happening all season.
So the difference between the worst case scenarios are the same. With safety help, the safety has to make the stop, while with McCourty playing cautious, McCourty has to make the stop. Both happen after the completion. The difference between the best case scenarios? It's no question. McCourty playing man can yield the best results.
The question lies in the utilization of personnel. Can the Patriots afford to commit a safety to helping McCourty? When teams have five potential receivers, the Patriots have to decide the match-ups. In a 4-2-5 defense, that leaves a defensive back to cover each receiver and a linebacker to try and interfere with the passing lanes. However, there isn't space for a personal safety to help McCourty over the top. That's understandable. The Patriots and the coaches just have to find ways to support McCourty when they aren't facing a spread offense.
A second, and just as realistic, question is: Do they have a safety they can trust in helping McCourty? That's a real question and is why the Patriots need to grab some elite safeties in the draft or in free agency. That's not to say they cut a safety who could be making the difference- I still don't think there's been a drop-off in safety production, just a difference in safety utilization- but it's a question of how they will fix the position in the future.
Play 4: This play will be extremely familiar to those of you who have see the other breakdowns. That's all I'm going to say.
McCourty is playing off the receiver with a seven yard cushion. Safety help is over the top (arrow). The Lions are lined up with 3WR/1RB/1TE. You can see McCourty has a foot backwards, but he's not over-committed to running down the field like he was in the hitch route.
So the play develops. Where have we seen this before? McCourty is giving a cushion to the receiver and is out of position as the receiver cuts to the middle of the field. The safety, James Sanders, bites on a pump fake is extraordinarily out of position. Oh, yeah- We saw McCourty beaten on the same route by Dez Bryant. We also saw it happen against Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers. McCourty is lucky that the ball was poorly thrown because the receiver had plenty of space up the middle of the field.
Same play, different angle. McCourty is lined up and the safety (arrow) is behind him. The Patriots are playing 4-2-5 defense.
The quarterback makes a pump fake and you can see Sanders take that huge step and commit to cutting off the route. Of course, that means that McCourty's help to the deep inside is no longer in position.
Yep. The blue area represents a space with no defenders. The safety would have been right in the middle of that area had he not bit on the pump fake. However, it happens and McCourty is not in position to attack the ball because the receiver cut to the inside when McCourty gave him a large enough cushion. Nine times out of ten, a good quarterback makes that throw and completes it for great yards after the catch.
This play is not fully on McCourty, just like how the same play wasn't his fault against the Steelers- it's a problem of safeties abandoning their role for one reason or another. I believe that once the Patriots have a solid grouping of safeties on the field, that McCourty will start looking like an above-average NFL cornerback again.
So in summary, McCourty's struggles aren't anything new. It's that opposing teams have had enough film to recognize where his weaknesses are (and where the weaknesses are in the Patriots defense) and exploiting that weakness. It's not that McCourty's forgotten how to play cornerback- it's that he's not receiving the same safety support he was getting last season and he's being forced into a more defensive role, instead of an aggressive role.
The issue isn't completely on the coaches and the safeties; McCourty still needs to learn how to disguise his coverages and learn how to gain depth on the field, without allowing receivers to take advantage of the space. He has to remain in contact with the receiver until they reveal their route. However, that will become an easier task if and when the coaches and safeties are able to provide additional support.