FOXBOROUGH — Devin McCourty is now the fastest-tracked ball carrier in football, but the Patriots defense was joking about another player working his legs on McCourty’s 84-yard pick-6 from Monday night in Buffalo.
It was defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who ran nearly step for step with McCourty for the final 30 yards of the play. He didn’t cover as much ground but he had to have been moving fast to keep up with McCourty, who reached a top speed of 22.05 miles per hour on the return, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
“AC, we think he must have been at 19.5,” McCourty said Wednesday.
That was more novel than McCourty’s blazing speed, something players see regularly. The 31-year-old safety has taken criticism that he’s lost a step, criticism that spiked after he gave up four touchdowns in two weeks against the Colts and Chiefs, but his teammates say that McCourty has legs and that narrative does not.
“Who said that?” linebacker Kyle Van Noy asked Monday night in Buffalo, informed that some fans and media members have called McCourty slow. “I was about to say you’re an idiot.”
McCourty’s 22.05 miles per hour speed on the pick-6 was the fastest reached by any ball carrier this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, who gets plenty of hype for his ability to move, owns the second- and third-fastest tracked speeds.
“You see those high knees? He had perfect form,” Van Noy said. “What a ballplayer he is. I think a lot of people don’t understand what he does for our team, his leadership on and off the field. Just as a player, his being able to do so much and take on so much volume that’s thrown at him is pretty insane. To be able to have a player like that and a leader like that, I’m humbled to play with him. I hope he gets that [Patriots Hall of Fame] red coat. I call him Red Coat all the time. He deserves it.”
The pick-6 isn’t the first time McCourty has been among the NFL’s fastest. A New York Times analysis done by the data company Sportradar tracked him running 21.66 miles per hour at one point last season. There isn’t speed data publicly available for McCourty’s run to tackle Chiefs kick returner Tremon Smith on Smith’s 97-yard kick return in the fourth quarter of Week 6 this year, but the safety must have been moving fast to catch the 22-year-old speedster Smith from behind.
That was the other play Patriots safeties coach Steve Belichick thought of when considering examples of McCourty’s speed.
“I’ve seen Devin run like that a lot. The first play that comes to mind — obviously, not a good one — is him making the play on the Kansas City kickoff return, running that down. But Devin’s always had tremendous speed and tremendous desire,” Belichick said. “You could tell as soon as the ball got in his hands he wanted to get to the end zone. It was a great play by him and he turned on the jets and it didn’t look like anybody was catching him. His brother was gaining on him a little bit, but I don’t think he would have caught him.”
(Steve’s father, Bill Belichick, said after the Bills game: “Looked fast to me.”)
On the younger Belichick’s point about Jason McCourty gaining ground, Jason said after the game that he just wanted to get down to the end zone to celebrate his twin brother’s first career pick-6. Jason McCourty, by the way, reached 21.07 miles per hour on a pick-6 last season when he played for the Browns. It was the 19th-fastest run by a ball carrier Next Gen Stats tracked in 2017, so speed runs in the family.
Jason’s reward for meeting his brother in the end zone and celebrating was to be told he needed to go back in the game on special teams. Devin told his (slightly) younger brother that he needed a breather and someone to spell him on the following kickoff coverage unit. The rest of the defense caught up and celebrated en masse in the end zone, clearly excited by the big play made by a respected teammate.
“That was just cool because once I got back to the sideline, all the guys were all over it, telling me about it,” Devin McCourty said. “I’m not really worried about me losing a step, just go out there and play. Today I got to showcase a little bit of the speed. So, 31, hopefully, I can hold on to my speed a little bit longer.”
It looks as though he can, and his teammates aren’t at all surprised given what they see on a daily basis.
“As soon as something doesn’t go perfect up here people are always going to say, ‘He lost a step, he’s slow,’ ” Duron Harmon said. “But Dev’s a guy who puts a lot into his football, preparing for the game, preparing his body each and every week. People who said Dev has lost a step obviously haven’t really been watching the tape. Because each and every week he’s running down somebody and he’s usually looking like the fastest man on the field. So they can take that.”
Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com.