Devin McCourty Is the Key for a New England Patriots' Defensive Turnaround

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIOctober 23, 2011

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 02:  Derek Hagan #80 of the Oakland Raiders is tackled by Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots at Coliseum on October 2, 2011 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Well, if the post-bye week section of the New England Patriots' season looks anything like the pre-bye slate, we'll know what to expect in November and December.

Standout performances from Tom Brady? Check.

Wes Welker playing as if he's in a contract year and his future with New England remains undetermined (hint, hint)? Check.

Devin McCourty looking overmatched in coverage? Check.

Wait, what? Still?

It's true. Six games into the season, and McCourty is still getting toasted constantly. The sophomore slump has extended into a full-fledged letdown for the first-round pick.

It's no coincidence that New England's pass defense has nosedived while McCourty has struggled mightily in his role as the No. 1 cornerback. He's the most-targeted corner in the league, and quarterbacks have a 125.9 rating when throwing in his direction.

This is the same player who was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler last season. The same player who placed second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. The same player who was second in the league with seven interceptions.

What happened? Why is the second coming of Ty Law instead looking like the dreaded return of Deltha O'Neal and Duane Starks?

People have had their excuses. No one wants to accept that something's amiss with the Rutgers product, so we've heard the alibis coming non-stop. Brandon Marshall catching seven passes for 139 yards? It's not McCourty's fault, he's big and physical.

Vincent Jackson's 10 catches for 172 yards and a touchdown? That's misleading, he can jump.

Stevie Johnson's eight catches, 94 yards and touchdown? No fair, he's fast.

The excuses should stop right now. Last year, McCourty lined up against Calvin Johnson. He finished with two interceptions. Matchups weren't the problem because McCourty could play several ways. He was physical and could press, he could back off and play in zone and he had good ball skills. Bill Belichick didn't ever have to worry about No. 32.

This year, it's a different story. Receivers are blowing by McCourty when he tries to press, and coming down with passes he swipes at in vain. He still tackles well, but too often shows off that skill after allowing 15-yard receptions and first downs.

With an inability to shake off these issues, McCourty is holding this defense back. The Patriots have improved along the line of scrimmage as linemen Andre Carter, Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Love and Shaun Ellis have started to gel, and as a result, New England has improved against the run and in points it allows.

But the pass rush remains insufficient, and McCourty isn't helping. His inability to contain his wideouts makes Belichick more gunshy when it comes to sending extra rushers, as he often has to compensate by dropping more players in coverage.

Until McCourty improves, this defense will only be able to get so much better.

This McCourty can't be the real one. He was taken in the first round for a reason. He was an All-Pro last year for a reason. He'll figure out what's going wrong and fix it, and this defense will improve as a result. The pass rush will get better. Third downs will get easier.

This defense is already showing signs of health. A strong showing against the Jets was followed by a game-saving effort against Dallas. When the Patriots return from the bye, where their defense picks up will be a point of focus.

If McCourty gets his act together, the defense will continue to do the same. Slumps happen, but this one has gone on long enough.