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McCourty descends from primary prospect to secondary suspect

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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McCourty lost his edge as a playmaker in a confidence-shaking second season. (US Presswire)  
McCourty lost his edge as a playmaker in a confidence-shaking second season. (US Presswire)  

INDIANAPOLIS -- There weren't many cornerbacks last season who were better than New England's Devin McCourty, and there weren't many this season who were worse.

So what happened? You tell me.

All I know is that McCourty was so bad at cornerback this year that he's not even a full-time cornerback anymore. The Patriots moved him to safety in sub-packages for the playoffs ... and don't expect that to change in Super Bowl XLVI.

I don't know what went wrong, and if McCourty does, he's not saying. When he was asked about it a week ago, he stumbled through an abbreviated answer before cutting short his session with reporters and leaving a news conference.

But facts are facts, and the facts are these: In 2010, he was so good, he was the only recipient of the two Defensive Rookie of the Year votes not earmarked for Ndamukong Suh. One year later, he was so dreadful he became one of only a handful of cornerbacks in NFL history to surrender more than 1,100 yards in a season.

So let me repeat: What happened?

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"He's not a very confident player," said former coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst with ESPN. "And there comes a point in the season where you either get it back or you don't. He never did."

Edwards should know. He was a defensive back, and a damned good one. He didn't miss a game in nine seasons with Philadelphia, was the guy who scooped up a Joe Pisarcik fumble in "The Miracle at the Meadowlands" and, like McCourty, was an instant hit as a rookie.

Where McCourty had seven interceptions his first year, Edwards had six. But where McCourty fizzled his second season, Edwards did not. Instead, he produced a career-best seven interceptions.

"The second year is your toughest when you have success as a rookie," Edwards said. "You feel like you have to play better than you did the previous year. So you start to guess because you want to make plays, rather than let the plays come to you. I wasn't the fastest or the strongest guy, but the one thing I did have was mental toughness. You couldn't break my will."

That hasn't been the case with McCourty, and a couple of coaches I trust think they know why. They believe the problem is not so much what McCourty was doing this season as what the Patriots were -- which was trying to make a transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3.

Normally, changing a front won't have an impact on a cornerback, except when it affects coverages. And when the Patriots made a concerted effort to stack the box, they left their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage -- which can be a problem if you don't reach the quarterback.

And New England didn't. I think you can figure out the result.

"They were trying to be this 4-3 team that rushed up the field and played eight in the box," one coach said. "So you get an extra safety down to play the run and play tight man-to-man coverage outside. At least, that was the defensive philosophy going into the season, but the corners couldn't hold up because the defensive line couldn't get there.

"Like the Giants, they must reach the quarterback quickly. So you play some of that tight coverage, because the corners don't have to hold up too long. With New England, it felt like that was going to be the case, but their pass rushers weren't getting there that quickly, so the corners couldn't hold up, and the result was they were getting smoked."

McCourty was the first through the burn unit. In the season opener, Miami's Brandon Marshall torched him for seven catches and 139 yards, and it was all downhill from there. The next three weeks, opponents had at least 344 yards passing per game, many of them over McCourty, and that was enough for coach Bill Belichick. He pulled the plug on the defense, only it was too late to salvage McCourty's fragile psyche.

"They've done different things to help the guy," Edwards said, "but he's not the same. What he's going to have to do is reassess himself after the year, because the physical tools are still there. He didn't lose his talent in one year. It's all between his ears right now, and he has one more game to play.

"When I struggled, I always went back to technique, to doing the little things like my alignment, my eyes, my keys, my footwork. I'd go back to all those things because people break down your technique and start attacking them. And if you can't adjust during the course of a game, you're going to struggle.

"Essentially, what he has to do the next week is evaluate himself and understand the Giants are going to attack him with passes. He's got to tell himself, 'If they see single safety-high, they're going to come at me. So why can't I cover them? Athletically, I'm the same guy. Is it my keys, my footwork, what?' You have to look at all that, because your responsibility is your responsibility."

Devin McCourty's responsibility is to play better than he did most of this season. The Giants have two 1,000-yard receivers and a quarterback who has beaten the Patriots in a Super Bowl, so McCourty should be warned: They will be looking for him. The question is: How will he respond?

"I don't have to worry about Devin," New England safety Patrick Chung said. "Devin's smart, he's comfortable, he's calm and he can always make plays."

We know he can. The problem is: he hasn't.

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