Nov 3, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (32) intercepts a ball intended for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Yesterday, I handed out the mid-season offensive MVP award to one Tom Brady. Today, I give you who I think has been the most valuable player on the New England Patriots defense, thus far in the 2013 season.
Every championship team in the history of pro football has had to deal with some major injury of some kind. It is just a fact of the game. This Patriots team has suffered that one “big” injury, along with three or four additional ones. I can’t remember the last time I saw a team get hit with as many big injuries as the Pats have, and because of this, it has really hampered this teams’ ability to execute at the level they want to be at.
The brunt of the injury bug has been taken by the Patriot defense, as they have lost three starters for the year, along with two others that have (or will) miss some time. Based on all of these injuries, you would think that the Pats defense would be near the bottom of the league right now. Surprisingly enough, they have fought well (aside from last week), and they are actually hanging tough, amid the tough injuries that they have suffered.
The guy that has stood out to me the most on this defense, has been safety Devin McCourty. He is quickly becoming one of the top safeties in the NFL, not only because of his general football abilities, but because he has shown that he is one of the biggest leaders on this Patriots team. The secondary has endured some rough times over the last year or so, from the injury to Aqib Talib in last year’s AFC Championship game, to the arrest of Alfonzo Dennard over the offseason, and again here in 2013, Talib going down with another injury. Through all of this, McCourty has kept his guys together and performing at a high level (much like the offensive MVP, Brady does).
McCourty was drafted into the league as a cornerback, and it appeared that he would stay there after a great rookie season, which included seven interceptions. But he struggled mightily in 2011, which ultimately led to his switch in 2012 to the safety position. Bill Belichick has made a lot of genius moves over the years, but this one may rank at the top. McCourty has made an effortless transition over the last year or so, using a lot of the skills he used as a cornerback, now as a safety. He still has some of the best ball skills in the NFL, as evidenced by a tremendous “volley” to teammate Marquise Cole two weeks ago versus the Dolphins. McCourty’s speed isn’t elite, but he can cover a lot of space, which he uses all the time in an effort to keep everything in front of him, which is the number one job of a safety. Intelligence is another thing that just seems to ooze from McCourty. He can diagnose plays with the best of them, as he always gets to the right spots at the right times. For example, last week when he intercepted Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter, he read Big Ben perfectly, as he got in position to make a pretty interception over Antonio Brown. It is those kinds of plays that jump out at you, and really make you appreciate the greatness that is sitting back there in Devin McCourty.
One thing that you notice a lot of the time when watching New England, is McCourty getting his guys in the back end settled in their right positions. This probably is one of the most underrated aspects of safety play. A lot of people will just take for granted that the guys in the secondary know where to line up. But a large percentage of the time, teams will line up in the wrong spots, resulting in a 60 yard touchdown pass for the opposing offense. McCourty never lets this happen to his group, underlining yet again why he is one of the top safeties this league has to offer.
I only have one stat to defend McCourty receiving the MVP award, and that is this. The Patriots have averaged giving up 6.7 yards per passing attempt through nine games this year, which is good for eighth in the league. A lot of the credit for this has to be given to McCourty, as he has continually kept things in front of him, which eliminates explosive plays from opposing teams. In a year where the Pats defense hasn’t been nearly healthy enough to compete with the top teams in the NFL, McCourty has held down the fort, which is why he is deserving of the mid-season defensive MVP.