Watch Devin McCourty this year, and more and more, you get the feeling you’re getting in on the ground floor of something great. One day, you as a sports fan will be able to brag that you saw him play when the cornerback was a rookie. You will remember how he bodied up to Roddy White in the preseason, when he faced Terrell Owens in his first game, how he only missed one defensive snap through the first 11 games of the season, and how he became one of the most integral parts of the Patriots defense in his first season as a professional.
He hasn’t been perfect, but there aren’t many rookies who have made the sort of impact on a Bill Belichick-coached team that McCourty has. In fact, you could probably count them on one hand: Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Deion Branch, Sebastian Vollmer and Jerod Mayo. Now, the Patriots’ first pick of the 2010 draft belongs on that list of players who have made a true impact as a rookie.
It is impossible to overstate how important he has been to the Patriots this season, even as a rookie. The combination of ball skills and physicality displayed by McCourty through his first 11 games as a pro are something special. On Thursday, the Rutgers product came away with a pair of picks, providing a spark for a listless Patriots’ team that was in danger of going down to a young and feisty Detroit team
First, there was the game-changer in the third quarter. Detroit was holding a 17-10 lead with 13:18 left in the quarter, and in a first-and-10 situation at its own 28-yard-line. Detroit quarterback Shaun Hill looped one down the New England sideline for All-World receiver Calvin Johnson, but McCourty went up and got the ball at its highest point, coming down with it and taking it all the way back to the Lions’ 23. Four plays later, Tom Brady found Wes Welker on a five-yard scoring strike to tie the game.
“I was just trying to play physical with him at the line and he inside released, and I could just tell he was going deep, so I got my eyes back and once I spotted the ball, you know with Calvin Johnson, you know if you don't go up and get it, he's definitely going to get it,” the 5-foot-10 McCourty said of the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Johnson. “I just tried to beat him to the ball … and if it’s a jump ball contest, he’s going to win 95 percent of the time.”
New England wouldn’t trail the rest of the way, going on to win, 45-28 (click here for the complete recap).
“That was a big play by Devin [McCourty] there that kind of really swung the game a little bit, with giving us field position and putting us back where we could be on the even-par with Detroit instead of chasing them all the time like we were in the first half,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
The second iced the game. New England was holding on to a 38-24 lead with 5:58 left. Hill went deep down the right side for Nate Burleson, but McCourty made the grab, taking it back 50 yards to the Detroit 12 with 5:58 left. Four plays later, it was 45-28, Patriots.
It was the first career two-interception game for McCourty, who now has five interceptions for the season. That ties him with Don Webb for the second-most interceptions by a Patriots rookie. They trail only Mike Haynes, who had eight as a rookie in 1976. It’s a relatively small sample size, but something tells me McCourty’s career is going to be closer to that of Haynes than of Webb.
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday in Detroit:
TOM BRADY SHOULD GET A LOT OF MVP VOTES
Brady has long-maintained that the real season doesn’t begin until Thanksgiving, and if this is indeed the case, he has spent the last three games positioning himself nicely for a run toward the postseason. Over the last three contests — a 12-day stretch — Brady has played some of his finest football since the end of the 2007 regular season, throwing zero interceptions and registering just 25 incomplete passes in that time, including a total of 12 incompletes over the last two games. (By way of comparison, Detroit quarterback Shaun Hill threw 19 incomplete passes in Thursday’s game alone.)
In the wake of a 30-for-43, 350 yards, three-touchdown, zero-interception performance against Pittsburgh that might have been one of the finest of his career given the opponent, on Thursday against the Lions, he was 21-for-27 for 341 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. (Thursday’s game marked just the second time in his career that he has finished with a perfect rating — he was also perfect on Oct. 21, 2007 at Miami when he went 21-for-25 for 354 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.)
After a rough start Thursday because of a leaky offensive line, Brady was at his best in the second half. The New England offense had seven second-half drives, and it scored on five of them, with the other two resulting in a punt and the end of the game. The finest sequence of the day came midway through the fourth quarter with the Lions trailing by just a touchdown. Brady and the Patriots opened at their own 16-yard line, and proceeded to go 84 yards in seven plays, a sequence where New England faced just one third down and had just two plays that ended up going for fewer than seven yards.
“He’s like a surgeon,” said Detroit center Dominic Raiola.
“We showed some resiliency. I think coming out in the second half and playing the way we did — the crowd was really into it,” Brady said. “We executed much better in the second half, so great for everybody.
“I think we’ve shown improvement,” added Brady when asked about the offense. “I don’t think we’re at where we need to be at, I think we still haven’t played 60 minutes yet, but it’s a tough group, I think we’re going to fight to the end. I think we showed some resiliency today, and that’s what we need.”
ACCORDING TO BRADY, DEION BRANCH AND WES WELKER ARE JUST THE LATEST IN A PROUD TRADITION
Branch was suffering from a hamstring problem earlier this season and Welker continues to make his way back after suffering an absolutely debilitating knee injury at the end of the 2009 season, but it’s clear now that, at least health wise, the two are nearing 100 percent. The numbers must be taken with a grain of salt because almost all of them came at the expense of Alphonso Smith (more on him later), but the two were absolutely dominant on Thursday, combining for 203 yards and four touchdowns.
“They’re tough, they’re smart, they’re Patriot kind of guys,” Brady said of the duo. “They do whatever you ask. They’re right in the mold of the Troy Browns, David Pattens and David Givens’s. Just spectacular players.”
As has been the case throughout the last few games, on Thursday, Welker was the slot presence that worked underneath while Branch was more of an outside threat who stretched the field. Of the two, Welker was more of the consistent presence on Thursday, catching four balls in the first half and four more in the second to finish with 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns (one in the third quarter that tied the game at 17 and another in the fourth that gave the Patriots a 38-24 lead). Meanwhile, Branch did all his damage in the second half, catching three passes for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 79-yard touchdown catch, which was the longest play from scrimmage on the season for the Patriots.
“It was just a play, something we’ve been going through, something we had going into the week during the game. Tom made a great throw; the front line did a great job holding up, because if you notice that wasn’t the first read. (He) came back to me and I was doing everything I could to get open for it and I did it. He hit me and the rest is history,” Branch said of the 79-yarder, which tied the game at 24 with just over five minutes left in the third.
Branch zigzagged back and forth to avoid Smith, and eventually broke free of an awful tackle attempt at about the 10 before cruising into the end zone.
“The biggest thing I was really just looking at the end zone, I wasn’t focusing on where he was. I was just hoping that no one was coming from behind. I think Louis Delmas was coming, so I cut back to the left, and [the] final time I was like ‘I’m done doing all the cutting.’”
THE PATRIOTS’ RUNNING GAME IS CAPABLE OF TAKING SOME HEAT OFF BRADY
The numbers weren’t especially flashy — as a team, the Patriots rushed for 109 yards, not one of their better performances of the season. But with Detroit’s aggressive defensive front focused on getting after Brady, New England was able to toss in a dose of the run game, which kept the Lions’ front off-balance and freed things up for the quarterback.
“(We) definitely tried to slow the pass rush down with the running game and a little bit better protection,” Belichick said of his team, which ran the ball more than it passed it (15 to 14) in the second half. “The Lions are fast up-front. They’ve got a couple really good inside guys. They’ve got a couple good outside guys that can rush around the corner and hit us on a couple blitzes there early. They have a very disruptive front.”
BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the ball 12 times for 59 yards, and Danny Woodhead, who reportedly signed a new deal with the Patriots, added eight carries for 32 yards. The two have become a complimentary pair — while Green-Ellis is more of a bruiser, Woodhead flourishes nicely in space.
For his part, Green-Ellis has become a dependable hammer in the red zone — on his 15-yard touchdown run, he flattened Smith once he got inside the five-yard line. In all Thursday, Green-Ellis ran for two touchdowns, the 15-yarder in the second and a one-yarder in the fourth, his eighth and ninth touchdowns of the season. Rather remarkably, he needs just one more to become just the eighth player in Patriots history to record double digit rushing touchdowns in a season and the first since Corey Dillon did it three years in a row between 2004 and 2006.
THE O-LINE IS CAPABLE OF IN-GAME TURNAROUNDS
It was a brutal start for New England’s offensive line. While the Patriots were able to move the ball on the ground and in the air for the first two quarters — they had 49 yards and 4.9 yards per carry in the first half, while Brady was 10-for-13 for 110 yards over the first two quarters — the line left Brady exposed to a few big hits, most notably from Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Suh came away with a first-quarter sack on a third-down play that forced a punt, while Vanden Bosch delivering a pair of big hits on Brady that were tough to watch and likely forced the quarterback to throw it before he wanted to. In all, the collection of Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer were dominated in the early going by a physical Lions’ front that came away with five quarterback hits on Brady, many of them hard ones.
However, the Patriots’ offensive line managed to rebound nicely and hold the Lions’ sackless in the second half. The extra time allowed Brady to operate without much of an issue down the stretch, and allow New England to pull away in the fourth quarter.
“If we give him time, there's nothing he can’t do,” guard Logan Mankins told reporters. “He’s going to find the guy that's open, and he’s going to get them the ball. The rest is up to us.”
“I think once the speed of the game calmed down a little bit and we could get it under control, we did a great job,” Brady said. “That’s a hell of a pass rushing team (with) Vanden Bosch, Avril, Suh on the inside and Corey Williams.”
THE PATRIOTS’ DEFENSE PLAYED A BETTER BRAND OF 60-MINUTE FOOTBALL THAN THEY DID THE TWO WEEKS BEFORE
In its previous two games, New England jumped out to big leads, but had to sweat things out a little down the stretch, holding on for big wins: The Patriots were outscored 14-3 in the fourth quarter against the Colts, but managed to hold on for a 31-28 win only after a late interception from James Sanders. The week before that, the Steelers rolled up big numbers in garbage time against the Patriots, scoring 23 mostly meaningless fourth-quarter points in a 39-26 loss to New England. Those 37 points represent the most points allowed in two consecutive wins in the NFL since at least 1997. The closest: 35 allowed in consecutive wins by the 2006 Bears.
On Thursday, the Patriots flipped the script a little, allowing 17 first-half points but just a single second-half touchdown (and nothing in the fourth quarter) on the way to the victory. While it wasn’t the sort of start New England was looking for, the defense down the stretch was more than up to par. In all, Detroit had six offensive possessions in the second half, and they ended in the following fashion: interception, touchdown, missed field goal, punt, interception, turnover on downs.
LIMIT YOUR MISTAKES, AND YOU LIMIT THE OTHER TEAMS OPPORTUNITIES
The way the Lions played in the early going was made all the more impressive by the fact that New England was, for the most part, playing error-free football. However, while Detroit started to slip in the third quarter (first with the McCourty interception and then with some foolish penalties down the stretch), the Patriots maintained their level, and that was the difference. In the end, New England did not commit a turnover, and committed just five penalties.
The Patriots are now 8-0 when they are at least plus-one in the turnover column. On Thursday against the Lions, they did not turn the ball over at all, and came away with McCourty’s two interceptions. According to Gary of Nuggetpalooza, Thursday marked the seventh turnover-free game for the Patriots this season — they never had more than six such games in any season since 1990.
Brady’s interception-free afternoon allowed him to extend his streak to 199 consecutive pass attempts without an pick, breaking his old record of 183 consecutive pass attempts without an interception (which he set in 2009). His current streak stretches from the overtime period vs. Baltimore (on Oct. 17) through the Detroit game. His last interception was on the last play of regulation against the Ravens last month.
In addition, Brady, who has had previous streaks with 183, 175 and 173 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, has now gone six straight starts without an interception, tying the franchise record for most consecutive starts without an interception. Tony Eason also had six straight starts without an interception in 1986.
THE PATRIOTS SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS TO FACE A CORNERBACK LIKE ALPHONSO SMITH EVERY WEEK
While he wasn’t at fault each time, Smith was the unlucky guy who found himself at the center of almost every big play by the Patriots on Thursday.
On Green-Ellis’ first touchdown run, he met him head on at about the three-yard line, and the running back simply ran over him on the way to the end zone. And he was the one who was beaten on all three Brady touchdown passes with the worst coming on Branch’s 79-yard touchdown — on that one, Branch cut back twice, then simply wriggled out of Smith’s grasp once the two were inside the 10-yard line for the touchdown. He was also turned around on the 22-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that went from Brady to Branch, a brilliantly executed out-and-up by Branch that left Smith wondering what happened. At one point, CBS showed a graphic indicating the Patriots had thrown in his direction seven times for five completions, three touchdowns and 125 receiving yards.
To his credit, Smith took the blame for what happened, telling reporters he was “doing his own thing” out there on Thursday.
“I just want to apologize to my teammates because they played so hard,” Smith said. “I feel as if I was the catalyst for this loss. I also want to apologize to this organization and the fans.”
“They went after him. He didn’t play his best. He’s played very well for us this year. He made a lot of plays for us, but this game wasn’t one of his best games,” said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz of Smith.
“We’re all one big family,” said fellow Detroit defensive back Louis Delmas. “If anybody has to take the blame for it, being a captain, I’ll be the one to take the blame for it. I think I should’ve done a better job of notifying him of who’s out there and keeping him on guard and I didn’t. They got a couple over his head and by far, it’s not his fault.”
AFTER A FAST START, BRANDON TATE HAS COME BACK TO THE PACK
Through the early stages of the season, Tate was a revelation. A year after New England struggled to find consistency in the kick return game, the North Carolina product provided an instant jolt at the start of the season, returning a pair of kicks for touchdowns and becoming one of the most feared return men in the league. In addition, in the wake of the Randy Moss trade, it was thought that Tate might have what it took to be the guy who could step in and serve as a vertical threat in the mold of Moss who could stretch the field.
But over the last month or so, the return numbers have dipped rather precipitously. Prior to the Cleveland game on Nov. 7, Tate was averaging 28.9 yards per return. Since then, he’s had only one game where he’s averaged at least 23 yards a return and zero touchdowns. On Thursday, he had four kick returns for 69 yards, a rather pedestrian average of 17.3 yards per return, with his longest going for 26 yards. There was none of the burst we saw through the early stages of the 2010 season when he ran back kicks against the Bengals (97 yards) and the Dolphins (103 yards).
In addition, with about four minutes left in the second quarter, he beat Alphonso Smith down the field by at least two steps, but flat-out dropped a pass from Brady that resulted in one of Brady’s six incompletions.
While he has had some good moments the last few weeks — including a 17-yard run on an end-around in the fourth quarter on Thursday — he’s showing up less and less on the offense and special teams’ score sheets. He has been struggling with flu-like symptoms, but there’s also the possibility that other teams have figured him out.
THE BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR WILL BE NEXT MONDAY AGAINST THE JETS
After the game, the Patriots received the news that they were given a three-day weekend before they were to report back to Gillette Stadium to begin prep work for the Jets on Monday. New York, which took care of business Thursday night with a win over the Bengals, now stands on top of the AFC with the Patriots. Both teams have 9-2 records, and their game next Monday in Foxboro will likely go a long way toward determining who will get home field throughout the postseason.
But first, after three games in 12 days, a breath.
“In 12 days this stretch of games that we played, we know what we can get done if we go in and set up with preparation. I think these last three games we’ve been preparing very well,” Branch said. “We have a big weekend ahead of us. We have a little off time, but I think mentally the guys need to focus on what we’re trying to get accomplish.”
“I really appreciate what these guys have done so far this year to be where we are at,” said Belichick. “It’s taken a lot of hard work, it hasn’t always been perfect — sometimes it hasn’t even been good — but it is what it is. We have a good opportunity ahead of us, so we’ll relax, kick back for a couple of days of rest and be ready and roll coming in here next week with the Jets.”