- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quantifying the quality of a cornerback is incredibly difficult because the best indication of solid coverage is when the opposing quarterback throws it in another direction. Yes, we're suckers for those big interception numbers, but sometimes it might be better to play by golf rules and give credit to corners who are thrown at the least.
Given that, it's been curious to see teams target New England Patriots second-year cornerback Devin McCourty so frequently over the first two weeks of the season. With McCourty coming off a Pro Bowl campaign, it would seem teams might take their chances with rookie Ras-I Dowling or even veteran Leigh Bodden, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
But neither the Miami Dolphins nor San Diego Chargers shied away from McCourty. And after both teams' star receivers had big games, New England's top corner was left admitting there is room for improvement.
Is this a sophomore slump? Well, coach Bill Belichick thinks No. 32 is doing just fine.
"I think Devin's done a lot of good things for us," Belichick said during a conference call Tuesday. "He's really probably played as well as anybody we've had on defense. As always, there are plays we'd all like to have back and do better on and all that, so Devin's very competitive. He sets very high goals and standards for himself. I'm sure he feels that way too. He's certainly one of our best players."
That's about as big a compliment as Belichick will deliver this time of year and suggests that McCourty is doing more good than bad on the field through two weeks.
Here's a handful of stats to keep in mind while assessing McCourty's performance:
• McCourty has been on the field for every defensive snap so far this season; only linebacker Jerod Mayo can say the same. And while McCourty has played all 148 snaps (including penalties), no other Patriots corner is even close among Bodden (100 snaps), Dowling (92) and Kyle Arrington (50). In a secondary that was largely overhauled coming into the season, particularly at safety, the snap totals speak to how much the Patriots are leaning on McCourty. After playing 95.6 percent of all available snaps a year ago -- second only to Mayo -- it's not hard to see why McCourty was voted a captain this season.
• During the season opener, the Dolphins threw in McCourty's direction a whopping 15 times while completing nine passes for 151 yards, according to stats logged by analytical site Pro Football Focus. Both the number of targets and yards allowed is a bit staggering, but McCourty's night was a microcosm of the Patriots' overall defense. He bent but did not break, helping keep Miami out of the end zone at key junctures of the game (including a fourth-quarter goal-line stand).
• McCourty wasn't as fortunate against the Chargers as Vincent Jackson produced a monster night with 10 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. With the Patriots' game plan designed to take away tight end Antonio Gates (0 catches), that left McCourty 1-on-1 with Jackson and Malcom Floyd at times during Sunday's game, tough assignments for even the best corners. McCourty did help produce one of the night's key defensive plays, another goal-line stand. With San Diego facing fourth-and-goal at the New England 1 in the second quarter, McCourty's ability to penetrate into the backfield and take on fullback Jacob Hester allowed Mayo to make the pivotal stop on Mike Tolbert.
• While every week brings new challenges, McCourty may have literally seen his biggest challenges of the season. Miami's Brandon Marshall (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and San Diego's Malcom Floyd (6-5, 221) and Jackson (6-5, 230) are about as tall and talented as they come.
That said, McCourty didn't see this much activity in his direction even as a rookie. According to PFF numbers, McCourty was thrown at 104 times during his rookie campaign, allowing 58 receptions for 614 yards and five touchdowns. He offset those numbers with seven interceptions and opposing quarterbacks boasted a rating of just 61.1 against him.
So why the jump this season?
"You'd have to talk to the other teams that are calling the plays or the quarterbacks throwing the ball," Belichick said. "We don't have any control over that. Where the ball ends up and what the offense decides to do with it, defensively, you never have any control over that."
But good defenses force opposing offenses to do things they don't want to. The next couple of weeks should tell us if McCourty simply drew tough assignments in Weeks 1 and 2, or if there's something else at play here.
McCourty doesn't sound overly concerned.
"When you see Brandon Marshall [in Week 1] and then this week we had Phillip Rivers and Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, we just have to keep getting better," McCourty said. "There are some plays which we are making the right plays on, like Sergio Brown making the big interception [against San Diego], and then we have a couple of good stops. Then there are plays where I was beat on two touchdowns.
"So right now it comes down to being more consistent and not making great plays sometimes, but to keep it going and string them together."
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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