FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It took Devin McCourty a matter of seconds to sprint from the hashmarks to the sideline before leaping in front of an unsuspecting receiver.
Hanging in the air and falling out of bounds, the New England safety cerebrally served up a perfectly placed pass for his teammate to haul in for a pivotal fourth-quarter interception.
It was just another play for McCourty. His teammates, however, feel otherwise.
“That was an amazing play,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “Devin was basically on the other side of the field and took off running. To be able to cover that much ground and have that kind of range as a post safety is remarkable.”
McCourty’s game-changing play Sunday in a win over the Miami Dolphins may have been the most dramatic and eye-popping yet for the unassuming former cornerback who is quietly transitioning into one of the league’s top safeties.
“It will probably never happen again, so that’s the cool thing about it,” McCourty said. “But moving on from it, and trying to see if we can make another great play this week.”
He likely won’t be alone in that regard, as there will be another perennial playmaker roaming the secondary Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5) travel to Gillette Stadium to play the Patriots (6-2).
McCourty may not hit as hard as seven-time Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu. He won’t run to the line, hurdle an offensive lineman and sack the quarterback like the long-haired Steelers safety, either.
In fact, McCourty doesn’t have a single interception this season. That doesn’t mean the 26-year-old defensive co-captain isn’t impacting the game in other ways, though.
“He’s a very unselfish guy. He puts the team first, he’s easy to work with, he takes pride in what he does and he cares about it,” safety Steve Gregory said. “Anytime you put those type of combinations together, you get a guy that’s going to be pretty passionate about football and a guy that’s going to go out there and give you everything he’s got.
“He does that on a weekly basis.”
McCourty’s transition to safety has been rather seamless.
He made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback his rookie year with seven interceptions but labored through a sophomore slump, recording just two picks in 14 games. As injuries mounted last season and the team acquired shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib, McCourty was shifted to safety.
And he’s been there since.
“The more reps you get at anything you do in football, the better you get at it,” said McCourty, adding he never targeted a single safety to model himself after, but takes something away from each one he watches in game film. “You see some things they do and some things you can incorporate in your game.”
McCourty’s mere presence has proven even more valuable for a unit decimated by injuries. Already missing their top two linemen and leading tackler, the Patriots also have been without Talib (hip) the past two weeks.
“Devin is a great example for all of us with his work ethic, his toughness, his consistency,” Coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s just a solid worker, great kid, communicates well, he’s smart and he’s been a very dependable guy for us.”
Even Brady can’t beat him.
The two-time league MVP tries to trick him in practice but McCourty doesn’t bite.
“You really have to look Devin off. He’s really smart, he sees combinations and sometimes you try to look him off and he knows you’re trying to look him off so he doesn’t take it,” Brady said. “The longer he’s been at safety, the better he’s done. He’s really been a consistent player for our team.
“He knocks balls away, covers guys in man coverage and then has that range in the deep part of the field where he truly plays like a safety.”
Kind of like he did against Miami.
McCourty read quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s eyes and darted toward the sideline. After jumping in front of receiver Mike Wallace, he somehow managed to pass the ball to cornerback Marquice Cole before his feet landed out of bounds.
Despite coaching the acrobatic Polamalu for the past seven years, witnessing some of the most athletic moves ever made by a safety, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin still was in awe over a big play he hopes isn’t made again this week.
“That play last week on the sideline, that tells you everything you need to know about him,” Tomlin said.