FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Devin McCourty was prepared for the challenge as a rookie cornerback last season, ready for any team to test the New England Patriots’ secondary.
Now, after the release of veteran safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, the acquisition of more than 1,000 pounds of defensive linemen and the drafting of a big cornerback, McCourty’s mindset hasn’t changed much.
“Last year, I came in and I was a rookie and I was asked the same question as a rookie, ‘Do you think they’ll challenge you deep?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and they did,” McCourty said Thursday. ‘ ‘This year, with the guys we have up front, of course” the secondary will be tested on long balls.”
He expects that to continue to happen in Sunday’s home opener against the San Diego Chargers.
“They have good receivers,” he said. “They believe in their receivers so they’re always going to take those chances down the field.”
San Diego’s top two receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, are both 6-feet-5. But plenty of teams have big receivers.
So, after tying for second in the NFL with seven interceptions and making the Pro Bowl, McCourty said he’s ready for whatever’s thrown his way.
“As a corner, whether you want it or you don’t want it, it’s coming,” he said. “When you play this position, you’ve got to have that kind of competitive edge.”
The Patriots’ secondary faced its first challenge in a season-opening 38-24 win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday night and had mixed results.
Chad Henne threw for a career-high 416 yards, including nine completions of 21 yards or more, while receiver Brandon Marshall used his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame to haul in seven passes for 139 yards.
The Patriots developing secondary knows there is plenty of room for improvement.
“Even if you have a great game, there’s things to work on,” said third-year safety Patrick Chung, who, along with McCourty, played every defensive snap on Monday. “You always have to find the things that you have to work on, so you can complete yourself as a football player and you can help the team.”
What the secondary lacks in experience, it more than makes up for in size.
Safeties Chung, Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo and Josh Barrett are all listed at over 200 pounds, while cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and rookie second-round draft pick Ras-I Dowling are both 6-1. McCourty is the smallest member of the group at 5-10 and 193 pounds, yet led the team with 11 tackles against the Dolphins.
“I think the biggest thing is just to kind of compete because those (receivers) are going to have that advantage. So a lot of times when the ball’s in the air, (I’m) just trying to go attack the ball, trying to get different ways to get the ball out,” McCourty said. “In this league, there’s a lot of bigger, stronger guys so you’ve got to kind of just stay after it.”
New England’s signings of defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson may further influence opposing offenses to test the secondary rather than run the ball.
“These are games where you can kind of make statements for how good you are in the back end as a defense when you play big-time offenses like this,” Ihedigbo said.
Still trying to jell after Sanders and Meriweather were cut in late August, the remaining members of the secondary are leaning on each other for help.
“They ask me questions and I’ll ask them questions,” Chung said. “When we’re in the meetings, when we have our own meetings, when we’re just sitting here in our locker, we just make sure that our communication is solid every time.”
It’s going to have to be loud and clear on Sunday.
San Diego had the NFL’s top-ranked offense last season behind quarterback Philip Rivers and his league-best 4,710 yards, and scored the last 17 points in a 24-17 win over Minnesota last Sunday. With Jackson, Floyd and 260-pound tight end Antonio Gates, Rivers has many appealing targets downfield.
“We’ve got our hands full again,” McCourty said. “But that’s what you kind of expect. In the NFL, we have more receivers that are bigger guys and still can run very well and run good routes.”
Gates, in particular, could pose one of the biggest threats to the Patriots. He scored in each of his last three games against New England.
“It’s a very talented receiving corps, very talented offense,” Ihedigbo said. “You just try to do your best to neutralize them.”