FOXBOROUGH — It’s not as though this is entirely new territory for Devin McCourty. He played safety at Saint Joseph’s High School in New Jersey, then during his first two seasons at Rutgers.
But his primary position in 2½ seasons with the Patriots has been cornerback. It’s where he starred as a rookie, earning a Pro Bowl selection. It’s where he has picked off 11 passes, his career total. It’s where he started his first 40 games with the team, playoffs included.
McCourty has been somewhere other than cornerback the last two games, though. For a number of reasons, he has been playing safety, giving him a completely different view of the field and providing the Patriots with a vocal, versatile defensive captain capable of making plays at multiple spots.
It’s an experiment that began late last season, in two games. It just might continue, starting with Sunday’s home game against Buffalo. McCourty is more than OK with it.
“Whatever they tell me to play,” McCourty said, when asked before Wednesday’s practice which position he prefers.
Most Patriots fans know that pass defense is a team weakness. The Patriots are 28th in the league against the pass, and no team has given up as many long pass plays.
As a defensive back, McCourty has been out there all season, and has heard the catcalls about the vulnerable part of the defense. He has made the position switch primarily because of injuries to the two players many assumed would start the season at safety.
Patrick Chung has missed the last two games because of a shoulder injury. Steve Gregory has been inactive the past four games because of a hip injury. With a pair of rookies next on the depth chart — second-round pick Tavon Wilson and sixth-round selection Nate Ebner — the decision was made two weeks ago to move McCourty. A human Band-Aid, if you will.
“There are always going to be some moving parts — there are moving parts every week because unfortunately we’ve had, like every team does, guys go in and out for various reasons, so it’s not perfect,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Ideally, if you could keep everything exactly the same every week, that would be great.
“Devin works hard. I would say he’s pretty good at everything. He’s a good tackler, he’s fast, he’s instinctive. He has a good feel for the game wherever you put him in terms of leverage, angles, decisions, that kind of thing. He’s smart. He has the mental flexibility to go back and forth between assignments.”
There are differences, though. Cornerbacks mostly draw man-to-man coverage assignments against wide receivers, while safeties tend to play deeper and provide help in zone coverage schemes.
McCourty can play both. He spelled an injured Chung last season, and is doing so again now.
He likes the new look playing center field.
“It’s cool, it’s different, you get used to seeing more of the field,” McCourty said. “As a corner, I think you see guys individually, even if you’re in zone coverage. At safety, you see the whole field, so you see all the guys, what they’re doing, how they’re moving.
“I think you have more of a responsibility since you have that viewpoint, to let everyone else know. Because I know, when you’re playing corner, it’s not as easy to see the different things that you see on film when you’re on just that side of the field, so I try to communicate and let guys know if I see anything from film study, I’ll send that alert out.”
At least statistically, McCourty’s better games this season have come when he has played cornerback. His lowest tackle totals (three) have come in the last two games, and both of his interceptions came when he was on the field at cornerback, against the Bills in a Week 4 win.
How long McCourty stays at safety remains to be seen. He professes to not have a position preference, and the Patriots could get Gregory and Chung back soon. They also traded for cornerback Aqib Talib, who is serving the final game of a league-issued suspension this week. The secondary, hit by injury and ineffectiveness, could soon get some missing pieces back.
Where McCourty fits when Talib arrives and Chung and Gregory return hasn’t been finalized.
“Everything is week by week as far as that’s concerned,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “Whatever the role is that week, where they can help us the most, that’s what we’re going to try to do with that particular player.”
“Dev’s a selfless guy, he’s a team player,” added Gregory, who has returned to practice and said he expects to play against the Bills. “He just wants us to win, and whatever they ask him to do, just like the rest of us, we’re willing to do.”
McCourty was twice named to the academic All-Big East team while at Rutgers, and now he spends his work week preparing to play both positions in the defensive backfield. Education is key, but so is communication.
“It’s really just knowing what we’re doing as a defense in the secondary,” said McCourty. “Especially if you know what you’re doing at safety, then you know what the corners are doing, so it’s not a bigger workload. Just knowing what you’re doing at safety, I think, prepares you to play corner as well.
“I have a good knowledge, especially for our corners, of what they’re doing, so I think a little bit of that helps. I can say things and then can communicate with them, to let them know that I’m on the same page as them. It helps them out a lot.”