Cover-3: Best of Seven
by Doug Farrar
With seven defensive backs selected in the first round of the 2010 draft -- the most since 1997 -- an impressive class of young defenders was scattered far and wide this season. Perhaps the most impressive, given his draft position and all the talk about those above him, is New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty of Rutgers, who was taken fifth among those defensive backs. McCourty leads all rookie pass defenders in Pass Successes (25), Pass Defeats (13), passes defensed (14) and interceptions (six). I was first alerted to McCourty when I wrote a Cover-3 in late September about three young cornerbacks and was told by our commentariat, in no uncertain terms, that I had missed the boat by leaving McCourty out. It's a fair point, and one I will now try to address with a larger view of his performances.
The Patriots actually had an interesting wrinkle to their 2010 draft class in that three of their rookies have relatives who preceded them in the NFL. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is the best of the three Flying Gronkowskis, linebacker Brandon Spikes is the cousin of veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes, and McCourty's twin brother Jason plays for the Tennessee Titans. Count NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang among those who are not surprised that of all the siblings, McCourty has made the biggest impact. And since we don't have charting numbers for a full season, Rang's numbers are the best way yet to tell you about McCourty's potential.
"In McCourty's last 38 contests, Rutgers allowed the opposition to complete 572 of 1,038 passes (55.11 percent) for 7,144 yards, 36 touchdowns and 32 interceptions," Rob wrote in his pre-draft assessment. "But against McCourty, opponents attempted 249 throws, completing just 88 (35.34 percent) for 684 yards and only two scores, an average of 7.77 yards per pass completion. He allowed just 2.75 yards per pass attempt, the lowest figure of any active player in the Big East Conference during his time there.
"Against his main pass coverage assignments, McCourty has held those receivers to only 42 receptions for 386 yards on 158 passes targeted into his area, meaning that quarterbacks have completed just 26.58 percent of those tosses and their intended targets were limited to 9.19 yards per pass completion and 2.44 yards per attempt.
"Those same receivers averaged 33.84 catches for 430.05 yards (12.71 yards per catch) and 2.47 touchdowns per season vs. other cornerbacks they faced. He proved to be an excellent press coverage defender, as his excellent field vision has seen him make plays on the ball 45.39 percent of the time outside his area, coming to the aid after a teammate had blown an assignment. He has jammed/re-routed those pass catchers away from 148 incomplete attempts (average of 3.84 per game), the most of any cornerback in the Division I ranks during that span."
McCourty actually had one of his best games in Week 8 against the Vikings, but as I've decided to make the same "No Favre Zone" promise that Dr. Tanier did for Walkthrough, that game may be best for a season retrospective or All-Rookie Team down the road. Giving McCourty half a season to adjust to the speed of the NFL, I decided to document his Week 10 game against the Steelers, and the first two games in the three-game stretch from Weeks 11 through 13 in which he registered at least one interception. (At this point, any good defensive performance against Mark Sanchez can't be taken too seriously.)
New England Patriots 39 at Pittsburgh Steelers 26
November 14, 2010
While Steelers cornerback William Gay was getting burned by Gronkowski for three touchdowns on one side of the ball, McCourty was contending with the other side of a receiving corps that's comparable to the Eagles'. In terms of pure "air yards" (yards gained on completions from the quarterback to the receiver without any additional yards after catch), Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace ranks fourth in the league with 15.4 per completion, while DeSean Jackson is just above him at 15.5. And Hines Ward has managed 10.4 air yards per catch, just below Jeremy Maclin's 10.6. So, someone on New England's defense was going to get tested deep.
McCourty's first target came with 13:10 left in the first half, when the Steelers had first-and-10 at the New England 15. Pittsburgh lined up in a bunch left, with Emmanuel Sanders as the lone wideout on the right side. At the snap, Sanders gave McCourty a quick stutter from press coverage and headed for an outside release on a 15-yard pass just outside the numbers. But McCourty covered Sanders so well off the line and trailed him inside enough to force Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball out of bounds to that side in the face of safety blitz pressure from James Sanders (no relation to Emmanuel, as far as I know). But if there's one thing that isn't going to bother Big Ben, it's pressure from just one guy. To me, this was a case of a first-read quick pass negated by excellent coverage. I liked McCourty's technique off of Sanders' stutter. He didn't lunge one way or the other, he simply kept his feet active and went with the play.
On the very next play, the Steelers went trips left (Note to all announcers who still don't know the difference between trips and bunch: This two-play sequence is an excellent primer!) with Sanders on an island on the right side again. This time, McCourty played about seven yards off, which allowed him to watch as Sanders dropped the ball on Roethlisberger's quick pass. The official play-by-play listed McCourty as "coverage", but he was a couple yards off the ball and closing in when the drop happened.
I was especially impressed by McCourty's coverage on a deep pass to Heath Miller with 1:54 left in the first half. The Steelers had third-and-12 at their own 16, and safety Sergio Brown had just made a good play on a deep pass to Antwaan Randle El. This time, Pittsburgh lined up in a tighter bunch left, with Miller just off the right tackle and McCourty deep in on that side, Miller ran a deep skinny post (at least, I think he did -- it would have been nice to have the All-22 on this one, NFL Game Rewind ...). McCourty, who started his backpedal immediately at the snap, was there to get in front of Miller and break up the potential catch.
The first time Wallace caught a pass with McCourty covering him came with 5:19 left in the third quarter and the Steelers deciding to get small on first-and-10. With McCourty backing up on the snap, Wallace took a little comebacker for a 10-yard gain. I'll say this for McCourty, though -- he was on Wallace like white on rice, and I noted his closing speed throughout this game and the two others I reviewed.
The Steelers got some little stuff completed against McCourty, but anything deep was off the menu. They tried it to Sanders again with 3:15 left in the game; this was another deep outside release by Sanders, but McCourty trailed very well. The only way Sanders was going to catch that pass was to lean back as he was falling. McCourty's coverage had worked too well. He put up a season-high 11 tackles (nine solo), and a lot of that had to do with how the Steelers were playing him, as opposed to the inflated tackle totals of a cornerback getting burnt to a crisp.
Indianapolis Colts 28 at New England Patriots 31
November 21, 2010
|Figure 1: Pierre Garcon catch vs. McCourty|
Against Peyton Manning, and even facing a depleted Colts receiver corps, McCourty was tested in different ways. The first throw against him came with 7:54 left in the first quarter, and the first catch came on the next play. The Colts were using formation diversity (no, I'm not kidding) to spread the rookie around into some different looks. The deflected pass to Pierre Garcon came on first-and-10 from the Colts 13. McCourty was playing left corner up near the line, Garcon tried a little quick slant, and McCourty played it perfectly. In fact, he almost had what would have been his second pick on the day, just missing the catch off the deflection he made. More and more, I'm getting the impression that if teams see McCourty playing tight on a receiver, that guy probably isn't going to get too many short passes thrown his way. He's vulnerable to underneath stuff on zone as every defender is, but he's pretty exceptional in short spaces.
The Garcon catch on the next play evolved from an interesting formation exercise on both sides, and since the All-22 was up, we can show the whole thing. The Colts went with two tight ends, and two receivers to the left (Fig. 1). New England responded with what first looked like straight nickel coverage, but it was just McCourty playing Garcon in the slot, and cornerback Kyle Arrington outside on Reggie Wayne. McCourty got a good jump on the ball, but Garcon got inside on the turn of a deep cross, and that sliver of daylight was all Manning would need for the 15-yard completion. Most cornerbacks would struggle to make up a receiver's inside position on a route that gets some level of separation. McCourty still looked decent (though not exceptional) with his speed, nearly catching up to the play.
The interception on Manning was an interesting example of how pick totals can misrepresent good cornerback play. I'd say that Mccourty had less to do with the results on that play than on any other in which he was the primary pass defender. Jacob Tamme was outside right against New England's nickel defense, and McCourty trailed Tamme on the sideline before Tamme turned back inside on a funky little curl route. Manning didn't get the memo, because he threw to where McCourty was, about 15 yards downfield from where Tamme had turned in, and it was pitch-and-catch for the rookie corner. This was also a good example of the problems any quarterback faces when he's working with newer receivers.
New England Patriots 45 at Detroit Lions 24
November 25, 2010
Two picks against the Lions may not seem all that impressive when you do the FO dance and adjust for opponent, but his first interception against Shaun Hill was the result of textbook technique. It happened when he was covering Calvin Johnson, who appeared to have a good eight inches on him.
Early in the third quarter, Detroit went three-wide, splaying the Pats into nickel coverage, and McCourty was the left corner covering Megatron underneath. Johnson gave McCourty a little stutter step at the line, used his physicality to get off coverage two yards out and ran down the field. It was the kind of simple route Johnson had beaten so many defenders with through his estimable career, but McCourty wasn't biting. Fifteen yards downfield, Megatron went for the jump ball, but McCourty -- who trailed slightly outside and was waiting to jump the route -- did so at the perfect time. It was more than your typical route jump, because McCourty also had to jump about a foot in the air to beat Johnson for the ball. So many of his excellent traits as a player -- his sense of where he is in the play, his lockdown quickness in short areas, and his ball skills -- were definitely on exhibition once again.
It's always an intriguing thing to scout one player through multiple games. You then have the advantage of blowing past sample-size issues and fluke games and hopefully discovering what a player is all about. From what I saw in three different games and short bursts of a few others, Devin McCourty isn't just the best cornerback in this rookie class, he's passing up the rookie wall and making his name as one of the better young pass defenders in the NFL.
The talent on that class of seven is starting to show up in a big way -- Earl Thomas has probably made the second-highest impact, followed by Eric Berry and Joe Haden to varying degrees -- but I don't think there's much doubt as to the identity of the early leader.