FOXBOROUGH - Young players in the NFL always have their ups and downs. There are dozens of things they have to learn and adjust to, from the speed of the game to the volume of the playbook to the intricacies of a new system.
Cornerbacks must also learn the tendencies of the receivers they will be assigned to cover, knowing how to play speed guys vs. shifty slot guys, how to cover those taller than they are, how to read a quarterback and make a break for the ball in hopes of being the one to pull it in instead of the receiver.
Last year, Devin McCourty seemed to know nearly all of those things from the day he started his first game with the Patriots. New England’s selection of the 5-foot-10-inch corner out of Rutgers with the 27th overall pick wasn’t widely celebrated. Draft observers called him a nickel back at best, a possible special-teams ace.
McCourty showed himself to be much more, earning a Pro Bowl berth after a season in which he led the team with seven interceptions.
So, the bar was set high for McCourty in 2011. And it was nudged a bit higher just before the opener when he was named a captain. New England’s other captains - Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Matthew Slater - are not just among the best players on the roster, they are among the best at their positions in the league.
Thus far, however, McCourty has been taking his lumps, and many are wondering what has led to his surprising sophomore slump. But not surprisingly, McCourty is maintaining his dedication to improvement, and trying not to make the same mistakes twice.
“I just continue to keep playing,’’ he said. “So far, you know, would I have wanted it to go better? Yeah. But right now it’s just trying to keep playing, trying to improve each week, and just keep going at it. There’s no other way, I think, to approach the situation.’’
According to ProFootballFocus.com, which grades player performance in a number of categories, McCourty has already been targeted 36 times this season, with 24 receptions, meaning two-thirds of the passes thrown to receivers he’s covering have been caught. Last year, he was targeted 104 times, with a reception percentage of 55.8.
McCourty has given up three touchdowns this season, compared with five all of last year.
While McCourty allowed nine receptions (on 11 targets) in last week’s loss in Buffalo, ProFootballFocus.com gave him a neutral grade for pass coverage. In Weeks 1 and 2 against the Dolphins and Chargers, he received negative grades for pass coverage. Last year, McCourty had just three games for which he received negative grades (his grade was neutral for nine games, and positive for five).
Does he think quarterbacks are targeting him more now than they did when he was a rookie?
“I don’t really worry about that,’’ McCourty said. “I feel when you go out there and you play corner, passes are going to come, so you just have to go out there and play.’’
While the numbers indicate that McCourty is struggling, it may not be entirely his fault.
“Last year, they played a lot of cover-2 zone,’’ said one league source. “There you saw McCourty effective because he was playing more at the line of scrimmage, he was able to play with his hands. This year, it’s cover-1. That’s not McCourty’s strong suit.
“If he doesn’t win at the line of scrimmage with his hands, jamming guys, they can run past him.’’
New England has been playing man to man, which generally requires shorter, quicker cornerbacks. The Patriots began bringing in taller corners a couple of years ago. Leigh Bodden and rookie Ras-I Dowling are 6-1, and McCourty and Kyle Arrington are 5-10, and all are more suited to zone coverage.
The lack of a pass rush is also hurting the corners. Playing man to man requires that the front seven get pressure. The longer players on the back end are asked to cover, the more likely it is they’ll get beat, no matter how talented they are.
Mayo said he and McCourty talk often, and his advice is the same as he offers all of his teammates.
“Just like if I’m out there struggling or he’s out there struggling, anyone, we just keep saying, ‘Chip at the rock, chip at the rock,’ and eventually it will break,’’ Mayo said. “Just continue to work. He’s a hard worker. I have no doubt with Devin.’’
McCourty insists his confidence has not taken a hit, and he’s working to balance having the short memory all defensive backs need on the field with filling his memory bank with the lessons he’s learning on film.
“The thing is balancing it as far as during the game while you’re playing, you can’t worry about it, you can’t think about what just happened, you’ve got to look at what happened, the formation and stuff like that, and see if it comes up in the game,’’ McCourty said. “But that particular play or what happened and the result you have to forget about until you go back and look at the film. That’s when you worry about improving and doing things, but in-game you’re just worrying about what they’re doing as your opponent and seeing if it will come up again, then you’ll know how to play it.
“It’s different things in different situations, so just trying to improve each one of those situations because only three games in you know it’s going to come up again. So take those different situations that happen in a game and just keep them in the memory bank and try to improve if it happens again.’’
On the field, he’s going to continue to do the only thing he can.
“I’m just going to keep playing,’’ he said. “Last year at different times I had bad games and just kept playing. That’s my focus right now.’’