FOXBORO --– Devin McCourty heard the same question a year ago.
“Do you think they’ll challenge you deep?”
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 Patriots’ 2010 first-round draft pick totaled seven interceptions last season, tied for the second most in the NFL and one behind the Ravens’ Ed Reed for the league lead.
It would stand to reason, then, that quarterbacks might not be so eager to throw passes in McCourty’s direction this year.
Think again, McCourty says.
“I don’t believe in those kind of things,” said the 24-year-old captain. “I don’t think offenses or players look at what you’ve done before and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to leave that guy alone.’ As a corner, I expect each week to go out there and be challenged.”
This week’s challenge comes courtesy of the Chargers’ 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 game’s elite pass-catching tight ends, Antonio Gates.
Buckle up, Pats secondary.
“It’s a great challenge,” said safety James Ihedigbo. “These 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. It’ll be fun.”
Allowing Miami’s Chad Henne to throw for a career-high 416 yards on Monday night certainly wasn’t the way New England’s defensive backs wanted to begin the season. But given the surgical manner in which Tom Brady picked apart the Dolphins’ defense, it didn’t impact the final outcome.
That won’t be the case every week. And with extra attention likely to be paid to the Patriots’ 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 Arrington’s consistency remains a work in progress, and rookie Ras-I Dowling, despite an impressive showing on Monday, is still exactly that – a rookie.
“This year, with the guys we have up front, I mean, of course [the corners will be tested],” McCourty said. “I’m only in my second year, we got Ras out there and Kyle and Leigh. Teams are going to take a chance. They’ve got good receivers, they believe in their receivers, so they’re always going to take those chances down the field.”
There aren’t many certainties among the Patriots’ 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 he’s witnessed to this point.
“It’s just going to get better as the season goes along, but it’s good right now, definitely,” he said. “You can see confidence in all of us.”
Perhaps the best measure of a secondary’s cohesiveness is its ability to band together when times get tough.
“In games, you’re going to face adversity,” Ihedigbo said. “Teams 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.”
During the week, Chung said, “We just make sure we’re all on the same page, when we’re in the meetings, when we have our own meetings, when we’re sitting here in our lockers – just making sure that our communication is solid every time.”
Anything less than solid communication on Sunday could spell trouble against San Diego’s 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.
“Both of those guys, you can throw the ball to them,” said McCourty, who stands at 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds. “Philip 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.
“Really, I think the biggest thing is to just compete, because those guys have that advantage, so a lot of times when the ball’s in the air you just try to go attack the ball, try different ways to get the ball out. In this league there’s a lot of bigger, stronger guys, so you’ve got to kind of just stay after it, stay on it and make everything tough.”
In other words, McCourty anticipates a heavy workload come Sunday.
“I don’t think they’re going to look at me and say, ‘We’re not throwing over there,’” he said. “I think they have enough belief and confidence in their abilities and talents that they’re going to go out there and take some shots.”