FOXBORO --â Devin McCourty heard the same question a year ago.
âDo you think theyâll challenge you deep?â
Even after a Pro Bowl rookie season from the cornerback out of Rutgers, it seems McCourty will once again be a target of opposing offenses in 2011.
The Patriotsâ 2010 first-round draft pick totaled seven interceptions last season, tied for the second most in the NFL and one behind the Ravensâ Ed Reed for the league lead.
It would stand to reason, then, that quarterbacks might not be so eager to throw passes in McCourtyâs direction this year.
Think again, McCourty says.
âI donât believe in those kind of things,â said the 24-year-old captain. âI donât think offenses or players look at what youâve done before and say, âYou know what? Weâre going to leave that guy alone.â As a corner, I expect each week to go out there and be challenged.â
This weekâs challenge comes courtesy of the Chargersâ formidable offensive attack. Three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers leads a group that features bruising running back Mike Tolbert along with a pair of dangerous wide receivers in Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson. Oh, and San Diego also boasts one of the gameâs elite pass-catching tight ends, Antonio Gates.
Buckle up, Pats secondary.
âItâs a great challenge,â said safety James Ihedigbo. âThese are games where you can kind of make a statement for how good you are in the backend and as a defense, when you play big-time offenses like this. Itâll be fun.â
Allowing Miamiâs Chad Henne to throw for a career-high 416 yards on Monday night certainly wasnât the way New Englandâs defensive backs wanted to begin the season. But given the surgical manner in which Tom Brady picked apart the Dolphinsâ defense, it didnât impact the final outcome.
That wonât be the case every week. And with extra attention likely to be paid to the Patriotsâ revamped defensive front, opponents may very well view the secondary as an area where New England can be exploited.
The logic makes sense. Consider the question marks surrounding the corners. Leigh Bodden is playing for the first time in nearly two years after missing last season with a shoulder injury, Kyle Arringtonâs consistency remains a work in progress, and rookie Ras-I Dowling, despite an impressive showing on Monday, is still exactly that â a rookie.
âThis year, with the guys we have up front, I mean, of course [the corners will be tested],â McCourty said. âIâm only in my second year, we got Ras out there and Kyle and Leigh. Teams are going to take a chance. Theyâve got good receivers, they believe in their receivers, so theyâre always going to take those chances down the field.â
There arenât many certainties among the Patriotsâ safeties, either. Patrick Chung is entrenched as a starter, but Bill Belichick is looking for someone to emerge from a unit that includes Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown and Ihedigbo.
Chung likes the progress heâs witnessed to this point.
âItâs just going to get better as the season goes along, but itâs good right now, definitely,â he said. âYou can see confidence in all of us.â
Perhaps the best measure of a secondaryâs cohesiveness is its ability to band together when times get tough.
âIn games, youâre going to face adversity,â Ihedigbo said. âTeams are going to make plays against you, but as a group we lean on each other and find that inner strength, so to speak, and fight through it and make plays when we need to.â
During the week, Chung said, âWe just make sure weâre all on the same page, when weâre in the meetings, when we have our own meetings, when weâre sitting here in our lockers â just making sure that our communication is solid every time.â
Anything less than solid communication on Sunday could spell trouble against San Diegoâs arsenal of explosive weapons. Floyd and Jackson present matchup problems not only because of their speed and route running, but also their size.
Floyd is listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Jackson at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds.
âBoth of those guys, you can throw the ball to them,â said McCourty, who stands at 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds. âPhilip Rivers has a wide radius to get the ball around those guys. One thing you see when you watch Malcom Floyd, he makes catches when he goes up in the air and it looks the DB is in great position, but he just goes up and makes a catch over him. Those guys are big guys who can both run very well, so they get down the field and when they jump on you in a situation like that, they have a great advantage.
âReally, I think the biggest thing is to just compete, because those guys have that advantage, so a lot of times when the ballâs in the air you just try to go attack the ball, try different ways to get the ball out. In this league thereâs a lot of bigger, stronger guys, so youâve got to kind of just stay after it, stay on it and make everything tough.â
In other words, McCourty anticipates a heavy workload come Sunday.
âI donât think theyâre going to look at me and say, âWeâre not throwing over there,ââ he said. âI think they have enough belief and confidence in their abilities and talents that theyâre going to go out there and take some shots.â