FOXBOROUGH — It can’t be sugarcoated: Over the first eight or so weeks of the season, the Patriots’ secondary was not very good.
It gave up big plays at an alarming rate, nearly all of which led to scores for the opposition. There was hope that perhaps it would be better this year after a subpar performance in 2011, but the early returns were not promising.
The nadir may have been the Oct. 14 loss in Seattle. Rookie Russell Wilson completed five passes of 20 or more yards, including a 24-yard, first-quarter touchdown to Doug Baldwin and the winning 46-yard touchdown to Sidney Rice.
But there has been a difference in the secondary’s play over the last five games, and it can be directly attributed to two things: the acquisition of Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay and moving Devin McCourty back to safety.
Those moves have allowed the Patriots to kick Kyle Arrington inside to slot corner, where he seems better suited. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard plays opposite Talib.
“I think some of it has been experience, where guys have been able to play, and then some of the changes we made have helped us, and just going out and executing,” McCourty said. “I think at the beginning of the season, in different situations we just didn’t execute as well as we needed to. We had guys positioned, we understood what we were doing, but it just came down to making a play.”
McCourty is now essentially the quarterback of the secondary and can put his smarts to better use with everything in front of him. Just a few months into McCourty’s rookie year, coach Bill Belichick said in all his years of watching film with players in the pre-draft process, McCourty was in a class with Ray Lewis and Lawyer Milloy in terms of knowing not only his job, but also all of his teammates’ jobs.
One league source said the Patriots have not had a safety with McCourty’s combination of instincts, athleticism, and ball skills since the early days of Eugene Wilson’s career.
Greg Cosell gave this assessment of McCourty: “He’s getting a better feel for reading quarterbacks and reading routes. You have to understand route concepts, have to be a step ahead and react to throws. He has two interceptions in the last two games, and they both were really nice safety interceptions.
“San Francisco will blame [Colin] Kaepernick for not locating [McCourty], but he also did a real nice job of reading the route. He’s become more comfortable.”
And Talib’s presence — we’ve seen him follow one receiver all over the field, a rare occurrence in recent years — has led to changes, as well.
“I think there have been stretches since they got Talib that they’ve played him in pure man coverage with no help,” Cosell said. “And that’s been effective. They didn’t really do it before because they didn’t have a guy that could do it.”
Cosell added that the defense has been able to do more with coverages, and there have been more blitzes called because of the improvement in coverage.
“They went after Talib for a reason; Bill’s not stupid,” Cosell said. “They didn’t have very good corners and it’s hard to match up. The offense is great but it’s tough to expect to win, 35-28, every week. I think the defense overall has been better.”
The numbers bear out the improvement: Over the first nine games of the season, New England gave up 49 passes of 20 yards or more, 15 of 30 yards or more.
In the five games since, with Talib and Dennard as boundary corners, Arrington in the slot, and McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety, there have been 19 passes of 20-plus yards allowed, and only five of 30-plus.
“I think we definitely felt like we needed to play better, without a doubt,” McCourty said. “I think the Seattle game, really we just needed to make a couple more plays, and no matter what we could have won that game.
“I think when you play in the secondary you understand how important it is that if you make a couple plays and then you let up one bad play in the fourth quarter, you understand that’s a bad play and it’s almost like it ruins your whole performance. I think we have a good understanding of how to play consistent now and it’s all about trying to make every play that comes our way and not giving up big plays.”
McCourty knows his teammates are gaining confidence, but to continue to play better, he knows they have to focus on working every day, not just Sunday.
“I think when you go out there and play well you gain confidence, but we also have an understanding that it all starts each week in practice,” McCourty said. “If we fall off that a little bit I think we’ll be a team that will go out there and struggle in the game. So just trying to stay ready and prepare each week have been helping us improve.”