Looking back at his first game in a Patriots uniform, Jason McCourty had no idea his role on the New England defense would mature as much as it has over the course of the season.
He didn’t doubt his abilities. And with 10 seasons under his belt, he knew the value of his experience.
“A lot of it’s just having confidence in yourself,” McCourty said.
But once he made the 53-man roster battling for a spot as a safety in the preseason, the question was where and how exactly he might fit.
Only touching the field for six plays in the Patriots’ season-opening win over the Houston Texas didn’t make things any clearer.
“Throughout this process, you get here, you don’t know what it’s going to be,” McCourty said. “You don’t know, ‘Am I going to play?’ The first game, I played six plays. And it’s just continuing to have confidence in yourself and continuing to prepare.”
Diving into playbooks, poring over film, and staying ready for any and all possibilities have been McCourty’s strengths since he came into the league as a sixth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in the 2009 NFL Draft.
In 11 games this season, that preparation — along with his versatility —
have made him an invaluable tool in the Patriots’ secondary. He has made nine straight starts at left cornerback, but coach Bill Belichick has taken full advantage of McCourty’s ability to move around if needed.
“He plays multiple spots on the defense, so he really has moved around probably more than any other player in the secondary over the 10 games we’ve played,” Belichick said a week ago. “But even at corner, he’s played inside. He’s played outside, unlike really any other player we have. He played safety. He’s a smart guy. He’s a versatile player.
“He’s shown a lot of versatility considering he missed the spring, but from training camp on, he’s done a lot of good things for us. He’s been very dependable, and tough, and durable, and played multiple positions for kind of the newest member of the secondary, if you will. He’s had a lot of responsibilities that guys like [Patrick] Chung or Devin [McCourty] have had. As a corner, he’s actually taken the brunt of those.”
In some ways, Jason McCourty said, learning different schemes over his career (he has played for five defensive coordinators in stops in Tennessee, Cleveland, and New England) gives him an advantage.
“I guess this is one of the situations in our game where old age is beneficial,” he said with a smile. “Just being able to play, I’ve been in quite a few different systems. So even where here you might be in a position where you haven’t gotten a lot of reps, maybe another system where it’s, ‘Hey, you did this in that system.’ So just kind of associating different things and just kind of being locked in each and every snap of knowing where my position is.”
He also had some familiarity with the Patriots’ philosophy having watched his twin brother Devin go through his own switch from cornerback to safety early in his career.
“Throughout Dev’s switch, I obviously wasn’t there for it, but I’ve talked to him a lot about it,” McCourty said.
Devin McCourty knows first-hand how challenging it can be to manage so many responsibilities.
“You’ve got to put the work in,” Devin McCourty said. “I think the easiest thing is once I played safety, the other roles from a mental standpoint were easier. I already knew what I had to do. The challenging part is physically, whether it’s playing corner, trying to cover someone or the different techniques that we had to do.
“So once I moved to safety, mentally, I was already ready and I think it’s just keeping all those skills sharp. Doing them in practice — whether it’s scout team or individual drills that we do — just making sure you don’t take that work for granted because you don’t know when you’ll be asked to use those things.”
Chung was another example of a player who took to it naturally.
“Since I’ve gotten here, watching a guy like Chung, I mean, Chung’s played the most positions by far of anybody on the defense,” Jason McCourty said.
“You have a lot of roles, you have a lot of responsibilities, which means you learn a lot of new things,” Chung said. “But you just take it as a professional and take it as a challenge from Bill. Depending on the kind of person you are and how resilient you are, you’ll be able to figure it out pretty easy.”
Having McCourty step into the same role this year has been crucial to the Patriots defense.
“The roles Jay has played this year, we wouldn’t be able to do things that we’re able to do without him,” Devin McCourty said. “Because of obviously his skill set, but his knowledge of learning the defense and communication.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.