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The man who holds the Patriots defense together

They don't have a fun nickname, but the Patriots also have one of the league's best secondaries thanks to safety Devin McCourty, the linchpin of the group.

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Super Bowl XLIX will feature two defenses with strong secondaries. The Seahawks get a lot of love nationally for their Legion of Boom, and with good right, but the Patriots aren't slouches in that area, either. New England's technically sound and physical defensive backfield is led by Darrelle Revis and enforcer Brandon Browner, but like his counterpart in Seattle, Earl Thomas, the main man in the middle for the Patriots is Devin McCourty, and he's the guy holding things all together.

Basics of the scheme

The Patriots, as you'd expect, mix up schemes and change things up over the course of games and from week to week, but against the Colts last week, and I'd guess against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, we'll see a lot of 3-deep shells. This means New England will drop their strong safety down into the box in run support to help out with the Seahawks' excellent run offense, put Revis on the left, Browner on the right (mostly), and stick McCourty deep to patrol center field.

The Patriots mix press man on the outsides with some bail technique, either funneling routes into McCourty or the linebackers in the middle or trailing with inside leverage, using length (in Browner's case) or technique (in Revis') to make opposing quarterbacks force tough touch throws up the sideline or to the back shoulder.

And their schemes have been working, particularly over the past few months.

Now, while the Seahawks, generally speaking, almost exclusively stick to 3-high looks, the Patriots will mix in a Cover 2 look now and again as well. As anything Belichikian, personnel usage depends on matchups, and Bill does a good job of utilizing his players for their skill sets.

This play, for instance, has athletic OLB Jamie Collins drop down the middle of the field Tampa-2 style and has the safeties playing the deep flats. McCourty reads the route, breaks on the Andrew Luck pass and hits the receiver T.Y. Hilton. It falls incomplete.

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"They use all of their guys - just about all of the depth that they have on the back end, you see them on tape," Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this week. "I think they're all solid players, but when you start with [Darrelle] Revis and [Brandon Browner] - we know about BB, and Revis is one of the best in the business. I think [Devin] McCourty is playing just about as well as you can play at safety, he's very active. So it's going to be fun. It's going to be a good challenge - one that we're looking forward to."

With that triad of players performing well, and supported by Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Kyle Arrington and a few others, it's a group to be reckoned with.

"By far the best secondary I've been around," Darrelle Revis said after the Patriots won the AFC Championship Game.

Are they better than the Seahawks' group?

"Whoever wins that game," former Seahawks Legion of Boom member Browner quipped this week. "Right or wrong? What you think? Whoever wins that game, we have bragging rights."

Bragging rights might come down to how well McCourty plays in the deep middle of the field, an area that the Seahawks have really exploited over the past few weeks.

Range, instincts are key

When you're playing single-high looks on defense, obviously that's a lot of ground to cover if you're the free safety. Nonetheless, McCourty, who started out his career as a corner, has the speed and play-recognition talent to make it work. In fact, during the 2014 season, opposing offenses only attempted 15 passes to the deep middle of the field on McCourty and other Patriot safeties -- good for sixth best in the NFL -- and only nine were completed. By comparison, Thomas, considered by many to be the premiere deep-middle Cover-3 safety, was only "tried" 10 times in 2014, giving up a mere four pass completions to that area (per NFLGSIS).

Taking into account the fact that the Patriots' defense was on the field for 99 more snaps than Seattle (about 1.5 games worth), McCourty and the Patriots' deep-middle numbers are damn impressive.

Generally, deep middle safeties are tasked with taking away the seam and the post routes in any given offensive look. If you get two receivers coming into your area, you have to split the difference until you see the quarterback give away his intentions or see the ball being thrown.

Now, when you hear about "instincts," what people are really referring to are play-recognition skills, and the ability to pick up on tendencies and patterns. This is huge for a deep middle safety or even a Cover-2 safety, because they just have so much ground to cover. If you miss your break on the ball by a half-second, that's too late.


McCourty probably takes one or two too many steps in his backpedal here on a deep post-corner route by Torrery Smith in the Ravens Divisional Round matchup. One or two steps too many! The extra beat makes the difference though, and as he breaks on the ball, Smith is able to get his hands up and secure it.

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The route outside of Smith is supposed to hold McCourty deep for long enough to sneak the ball to Smith underneath him. It works the first time.

The second time the Ravens try it though, McCourty reads it like a book. It's especially impressive because unlike the first time Baltimore ran this play, the tight end to the playside is able to get off his blocks and into his route. Still, McCourtey senses that Joe Flacco wants to go to the crossing route and he goes over the top of the tight end's route, completely ignoring that option, and he essentially runs right to where he knows the football will end up.

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"One of the things you like about Devin McCourty is not making the same mistake twice or recognizing the play the second time around," Patriots head coach Belichick explained in a great Xs and Os breakdown series at New England's official website. "(It's) a great job of recognition, anticipation, seeing the play and making it. A lot of times I hear from media or fans, why didn't you keep running a play that's working? One of the reasons is it's hard to keep doing it over and over again . . . players see it the second time in a game and they nail it."

Having Revis allows you to do some fun things

It's impossible to talk about the Patriots' pass defense without acknowledging what Revis' talents bring to the equation. With Revis able to follow an opponent's best receiver around and/or lock down one whole side of the field, essentially, it allows a defensive coordinator to get a little more aggressive with a deep safety.

"He does everything well," Seahawks defensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this week. "I know that they feel confident that they can just put him on an island, but they can put him over there one on one and the other guys can help the other side of the field and he'd be able to take care of that, or at least he's been able to in his past. So he's a solid player - he can play bump and run, he understands concepts, he can jump routes if he needs to, he can play the deep ball. So he's a solid player."

This means that, if the Patriots want to, they can use McCourty in a 'robber' role, jumping shorter routes crossing the field, and they can tilt him in coverages away from Revis' side, making things tighter spatially for Seattle. Bottom line, it's going to be a great matchup in the defensive secondary, and McCourty is the man in the middle of it.