FOXBOROUGH — Saying that defensive back is a position sells it short. It’s a mind-set.
It’s the headstrong confidence bordering on arrogance that Devin McCourty wasn’t afraid to show his rookie season when he picked off everyone from Philip Rivers to Peyton Manning to Mark Sanchez.
It’s what made him an instant Pro Bowler.
To a degree, it’s the ingredient that felt like it was missing last season when the Patriots secondary was the second-worst in the NFL.
But now, it’s a mentality McCourty says the unit is trying to rediscover and then maintain throughout the season.
“We’re just trying to be aggressive and be competitive,” McCourty said. “I think all the way throughout the secondary, guys are just trying to develop an attitude. Defense has a lot to do with attitude, how you approach the game. So we’re trying to keep an attitude and trying to do it day in and day out.’’
It’s intangible, but it’s important.
“It’s an attitude that we’ve got to always have,” McCourty said. “As defensive players, we’ve got to be attackers. There’s great offenses in this league and we’ve got to want to hit people in the mouth and go out there and play hard.”
In his first season, McCourty accounted for seven of the team’s 25 interceptions. Last year, he picked off just two passes. As a whole, the Patriots gave up 4,703 passing yards, struggling to keep some of the league’s most potent passing attacks grounded.
Miami’s Chad Henne, San Diego’s Rivers, Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, Oakland’s Jason Campbell, Dallas’s Tony Romo, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Philadelphia’s Vince Young, and Indianapolis’s Dan Orlovsky all ran up at least 300 passing yards on the Patriots secondary last season, picking on a unit that struggled with injuries and plugged in replacements on the fly (the one extreme Julian Edelman, who moved from wide receiver to cornerback).
In the Super Bowl, Eli Manning threw for 296 yards and one touchdown, but the biggest play was Mario Manningham’s toe-tap grab along the sideline that ultimately set up the go-ahead touchdown in a 21-17 Giants win that made for a long Patriots offseason.
But with a healthy unit in training camp, the secondary is looking to put last season behind it.
“As far as trying to prove something, I just think we’re trying to be ready to go this year,” McCourty said. “Last year is over. Some good, some bad, but whatever it is, it’s over. Now we’re focused on this team and this year, and as a secondary we’re trying to be there for this defense and be a big part of it, because we know we have to.”
From Ras-I Dowling, who’s impressed in camp after missing all of last season, to Patrick Chung, who’s been nothing if not feisty so far after sitting out half of last season, the group will benefit from having some of the missing pieces it was depending on back in place this year.
Dowling is battling Kyle Arrington for the spot at right corner, and Chung is one of eight safeties on the roster competing for time. McCourty’s even seen some work at safety in camp, which hasn’t surprised him at all.
“When you play in New England, you kind of have to be ready to play anything,” he said. “We’ve had receivers play defense. We’ve had everything.”
The primary focus for the secondary in camp has been finding consistency by stringing solid days together.
The chatter about the secondary being the weak link last season is impossible to ignore, but they can’t silence it all in training camp or in the preseason.
“I think we’re doing a good job of coming out here, making some plays that are out there,” McCourty said. “And I think guys are doing a good job of working hard at actually going in there watching the film and trying to correct what’s been wrong on film and getting it done the next day. I think that’s kind of exciting to see when guys are able to fix mistakes and we’re not having the same mistakes over and over.”
With Drew Brees and the Saints in town for joint practices before opening the preseason schedule Thursday at Gillette Stadium, McCourty said he realizes how much of a challenge the Saints offense poses and sees it as a chance for the secondary to get better.
“The game doesn’t count, but the opportunity is there for us to go out there and get better,” he said. “The better competition you go against, it can only make you better. Drew Brees is one of the top quarterbacks in this league along with what they have offensively at the tight end and wide receiver position. As a secondary I think we’re just going to go out and play and try to get better.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.