FOXBOROUGH — With 4 minutes, 4 seconds left in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game at Indianapolis, referee Tony Corrente flipped his microphone on and said something that hadn’t been spoken, at least regarding the Patriots, in 1,106 days.
“Pass interference, defense No. 32. The ball will be placed at the spot of the foul. Automatic first down.”
Devin McCourty is the player Corrente was identifying, after field judge Buddy Horton threw his flag and called a penalty for defensive pass interference. It came on a first-and-18 play from the Patriots’ 26-yard line, with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck attempting to hit rookie receiver Phillip Dorsett deep down the right side.
Running stride-for-stride with Dorsett as they veered toward the sideline, McCourty used his right hand to push the receiver on his left shoulder, and positioned his body to force Dorsett out of bounds. When the ball was in the air, Dorsett’s left arm became entangled with the right arm of McCourty, the contact causing the Patriots safety to fall down. Horton’s yellow penalty flag came flying into view an instant later.
The 18-yard penalty placed the ball at the Patriots’ 8, and the Colts scored a touchdown three plays later to take a 21-17 lead. The Patriots won the game, 34-27, improving to 5-0 and setting up an AFC East showdown with the New York Jets (4-1) Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
According to a website that tracks NFL penalties, there had been 81 defensive pass interference penalties called this season heading into Thursday night’s game, so it’s not an uncommon occurrence. But against McCourty, it is.
Prior to Sunday, the most recent time McCourty had been flagged for pass interference was Oct. 7, 2012, in a game against the Broncos. That came two weeks after McCourty was penalized for pass interference against the Ravens.
In the next 54 games after getting flagged against Denver, playoffs included, McCourty was never penalized for pass interference. Then came Sunday.
Three years is a long time. So long that McCourty was stumped when asked if he knew the last time he had been penalized for pass interference.
(McCourty was told 2012)
“Really? Against who?”
(Baltimore and Denver)
“Oh yeah, I remember that. I don’t remember the Denver play, but I remember the Baltimore play.”
What followed was an in-depth look by McCourty at his approach to playing pass defense, while ensuring that he’s not called for interference, or anything else. He went the entire 2014 season without committing a penalty, of any sort.
“I’m like every other guy. We work on our techniques and try to get better, but I’m never out there thinking, ‘OK, on this play I can’t get a pass interference penalty.’ I’m just trying to execute the technique and what I’ve worked on in the offseason,” McCourty said before practice on Thursday. “Some of it is playing deep safety, I’m not in man coverage all the time. But in other situations, you’re just trying to play good man coverage. You’re trying to not get penalties and make a play, but it happens.
“Even the one I got, I’m thinking about leaning into this guy, get my head back, and find the ball. I got called for pass interference. If I get into a similar situation, I’ll be thinking the same thing: lean on him, get my head back, try and find the ball. Next time it might look better to the ref and I won’t get penalized, but I’m still thinking the same technique. It’s the same mentality. You go against good players and sometimes they cause you to have a penalty.”
McCourty made the switch from cornerback to safety midway through the 2012 season, so he isn’t in man-to-man coverage as often. But in the pass-happy NFL, teams often favor four- and five-receiver formations, so McCourty often will line up near the line of scrimmage in pass coverage, ready to blanket his man. The goal is that he does it well enough that the pass never gets thrown his way. And if it does, not to make the kind of early contact on the receiver that would draw a referee’s attention and result in a penalty.
It’s not nearly as easy as McCourty makes it look.
“Defensive back is a hard position to play, because there are a lot of split-second decisions. We try to play with a lot of patience and play in control, hold back on that urge to get there too soon or get too handsy,” said cornerback Logan Ryan, who has been called for pass interference three times in his three-year NFL career, but none this season. “Obviously he’s a smart player, he’s a leader, always knows what he’s doing and always knows what everybody else is doing. I think that shows in those penalties. That stat right there [first pass interference penalty on McCourty since 2012] is amazing.”
Bill Belichick said one reason McCourty can keep the penalty number down is because of his speed.
“A lot of players, when they don’t have that kind of speed, try to sometimes do things to impede the guy they are covering from running full speed, whether that’s grab them, arm bar them, cut them off, that kind of thing,” Belichick said. “Devin has very good speed, has the ability to cover a lot of ground. I’d say most of the faster players have less of those kinds of penalties than the guys who don’t run quite as well.”
Speed helps, but McCourty also said he’s benefited from the offseason time spent training in Arizona, when he’s been joined by additional defensive backs, some of them members of the Patriots, others not, such as his twin brother, Jason. McCourty said he’s used the time to fine-tune his technique, and mold a mind-set that he can take to the field.
Five previous seasons spent in the NFL also gives McCourty an idea of what might get called a pass interference penalty, and what might be let go.
“Sometimes it is using your hands a little bit, but it’s not grabbing guys up top. Maybe a guide hand, there’s little things within the rules that you can do,” McCourty said. “Guys are too good for you to be out there trying to play with your hands behind your back. That’s like telling a receiver, ‘Don’t push off at all.’ That’s not going to happen. You learn how to play within the rules.”
In the first quarter of the Colts game, McCourty also was called for an illegal block in the back on a punt, nullifying a 36-yard return by Julian Edelman. It was McCourty’s first penalty of any kind since he was flagged for holding on Nov. 18, 2013, at Carolina.
Immediately after Sunday’s pass interference penalty, McCourty was seen pleading his case with two officials, including Horton, the field judge who threw the flag. It was obvious McCourty didn’t agree with the ruling on the field at the time it was called.
What about now, after he’s seen the film and had a few days to think it over?
“It was a great call,” McCourty said, “because they called it.”