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Strict confidence

A frequent target of other teams, and criticism, McCourty hasn’t wavered

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / February 4, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - Confidence is the only currency a cornerback really needs.

Lose it, and all the talent, all the knowledge, all the film study in the world won’t help.

Patriot Devin McCourty, his twin brother, and one of his best friends all insist that McCourty’s confidence was never rattled this season, even as he got off to a rocky start unexpected from a player who went to the Pro Bowl last year as a rookie.

It wasn’t easy to hold onto that currency, however. As McCourty gave up several big plays to San Diego’s Vincent Jackson in Week 2, including two touchdowns, as he allowed a TD to Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson in Week 3, it was as if his metaphorical money was spilling onto the field.

In the first three games of the season, ProFootballFocus.com, a Sabremetrics-type website, credited McCourty with allowing 151, 123, and 104 receiving yards to the players he was charged with covering.

In all 17 games he played as a rookie, he never gave up more than 92.

Those numbers went down sharply over the next five weeks, but that didn’t stop McCourty from being peppered with questions about his performance, or the talk on local radion stations of his rookie season being an anomaly.

To his credit, McCourty, who was selected as a team captain before the start of the season, a testament to the respect he’d gained in such a short time, met with reporters every week, repeating that he was working hard and trying to get better.

“[It was] just some bad plays,’’ McCourty said this week. “And I think the biggest thing is when you play corner, if you have some bad plays, all your good plays, they’re thrown away. For me, I’m the same way, I look at all my bad plays and forget about the good plays.’’

He tuned out the outside noise, but at home, where teammate/roommate Tiquan Underwood says McCourty spends hours with his headphones on listening to music while he watches film on his iPad, he was analyzing himself, and trying to hold onto that currency as best he could. But it wasn’t easy.

“It’s definitely challenging. As a player, you watch film and you sit there and ask yourself, ‘Why did I do that?’ ’’ he said. “But as a player and as a teammate you have to do that for your team, you have to do that for yourself. Keep being confident, keep going out there and playing.’’

Twin brother Jason, also a cornerback, had a strong season for the Titans. Each understands the ups and downs that come with playing the position, though their situations are different, playing for different organizations with different coaching staffs.

“I don’t think so,’’ Jason said when asked if Devin’s confidence waned. “I think maybe you go out there Sunday, you don’t have such a great game, Monday you may feel a little down. But by the time Wednesday hits and you’ve introduced a new team, you’re back in the locker room among the guys, it’s a brand new week. You move on and it’s like a new season every week. You already know if you’re going into the next game thinking about the last game, you don’t stand a chance.’’

It is Jason who points to Devin’s early-season assignments, noting that going against receivers as talented as Brandon Marshall and Jackson, you’re going to win some battles and lose some.

Underwood, a Rutgers teammate who is close to both brothers, said McCourty’s attitude has been steady throughout, and his positive outlook is one of the best things about his friend.

The biggest problem for McCourty, it seems, was man-to-man coverage. He played zone throughout his time at Rutgers, and the Patriots played zone the majority of the time last season. But at the start of this season, the switch was made to man.

Both Devin and Jason say an NFL corner should be able to play both effectively, though clearly all players have strengths and weaknesses.

During the regular season, league scouts told the Globe that it was evident teams were picking on McCourty when the Patriots were in press-man coverage. There definitely were times McCourty felt he was being targeted.

“Oh, yeah. I mean, I had one year in this league and once you have one year it gives them a chance to see what you do well, what you don’t do well, and last year no one knew what I did,’’ he said. “They’re not watching college film to scout you. Once you play the game people are going to understand [your strengths and weaknesses] and whether it’s picking on you or just taking advantage of what they think they do better than you, it is what it is and that’s what offenses will continue to do.

“At that position, if you’re targeted 10 times or if you’re targeted five times, you want to compete and you want to play well any time they’re throwing at you.’’

In recent weeks, a new wrinkle was added: McCourty was asked to play safety, mostly in nickel situations. McCourty’s first interception of the season, in Week 16 against Miami, came when he was at safety, and he’s able to see more of the field when he drops back.

It’s not known whether he’ll stay at safety in the future. McCourty has been lauded by coach Bill Belichick as one of the best players he’s seen in the pre-draft process at breaking down film. He’ll continue to keep looking for ways to improve, both for tomorrow’s game against the Giants and as he heads into his third season.

And all the while, he’ll be holding onto his currency, knowing that without it, he’s got nothing.

“You just keep playing,’’ McCourty said. “Each game is different - you can go out there and have a great game and then feel like you’re on top of the world, and get humbled very quickly the next week in this league.

“For me, it’s a kind of fresh start each week and as a player you believe, ‘This is the week I’m going to have my big game.’ I still feel like that. I still feel like that every game I go into.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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