New England Patriots

Nov 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates his pick six with safety Adrian Phillips (21) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Starting with his full-time shift to safety during the 2012 season, his third overall and second as a team captain, Devin McCourty has annually led a secondary featuring at least one Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback.

Aqib Talib. Darrelle Revis. Malcolm Butler. Stephon Gilmore. J.C. Jackson.

For much of that time, he also enjoyed a championship simpatico with fellow safeties Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. Cohesiveness and seemingly clairvoyant communication were their trademarks.

But as McCourty enters his 24th career playoff start in his 11th postseason Saturday night in Buffalo, the group he leads is in flux. With nearly every check of the transaction wire lately, something changes in the Pats’ secondary.

Exceptions remain the stability of Jackson, who’ll line up opposite Bills All-Pro Stefon Diggs for a third time in seven weeks; and the reliability of Adrian Phillips, who’s become McCourty’s Chung-like accomplice in their two years together.

Examples include the status of Jalen Mills, a full-time starting corner as a first-time Patriot now on the reserve/COVID-19 list; Kyle Dugger, who missed two of the last four games due to illness and injury; and Myles Bryant, who was absent from the regular-season finale because of COVID-19.

  • Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates with cornerback Jalen Mills (2) and safety Adrian Phillips (21) and cornerback Joejuan Williams (33) after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates with cornerback Jalen Mills (2) and safety Adrian Phillips (21) and cornerback Joejuan Williams (33) after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Before last Sunday at Miami, Sean Davis and D’Angelo Ross were elevated from the practice squad. While Davis played his second game with his third team in 2021, Ross logged a career-high 46 defensive snaps in his third pro appearance. He totaled 14 defensive snaps in his previous two games.

    Two days later, free agent Cre’von LeBlanc was signed to the practice squad, rejoining his original organization. Like Davis, New England is LeBlanc’s third NFL stop since the fall.

    Fast forward to Friday, Ross and De’Vante Bausby, who hasn’t played since the 2020 finale for Denver, were brought up to the Pats for their playoff encounter with the Bills.

    Meanwhile, the situations surrounding Shaun Wade, who’s made only three pro appearances, and Joejuan Williams, who’s been inactive for a half dozen games in 2021, are enigmatic. One is a rookie the Patriots acquired in a trade. The other was a 2019 second-round pick they obtained by trading up.

    All of this follows an October in which Gilmore was traded and steady slot cornerback Jonathan Jones was injured. More than any position group, the Patriots’ secondary has suffered from missing players and players missing games and practices.

    Now, they have no margin for messing up.

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 26: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills is hit by Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 26: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills is hit by Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    Three weeks ago, Bills quarterback Josh Allen torched the Pats for 317 passing yards and three touchdowns. He did it without receivers Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis. Both are back for their Wild Card playoff.

    Whoever he winds up alongside, it’s up to McCourty to help hold New England’s last line of defense.

    “It’s part of the job,” the 34-year-old McCourty said on Wednesday. “You’re fortunate when you get a group (where) everyone stays healthy and everyone’s out there for all 17 games. But it’s usually not what happens in this league. I would say over the last couple of weeks between Myles and D’Angelo coming in there, they’re two of the guys that play a lot of roles in our secondary. And I would say they’re two of the more trusted guys we have.”

    That trust, McCourty explains, lies in their overall knowledge of the Patriots defensive system.

    “It doesn’t matter if they’ve played every snap or they’ve only played one snap all year,” he continued. “Those two guys study and know everything that I have to do at free safety, everything the corners have to do. They know even what AP and Dug’ do.”

    If anyone among them knows all, it’s McCourty. Though he’s in no position to tell everyone everything, he’ll try to make sure they know enough.

    “For me as the safety of the group, (I’m) just always reminding guys what we got,” McCourty says of situations. “Being a constant voice in the guys’ ears to create and make sure we have that good mesh, good communication and continue to build our confidence up during the week and throughout the game.”

  • Allen’s Town

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 26: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills looks to throw the ball as Christian Barmore #90 of the New England Patriots applies pressure during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 26: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills looks to throw the ball as Christian Barmore #90 of the New England Patriots applies pressure during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    Within the city blocks of Buffalo is a neighborhood best known for the arts. Museums. Music. Culture!

    As marked on maps and signs on its streets, the area is officially called Allentown.

    As for Allen’s town? That’s all of Buffalo.

    And the Bills are Allen’s team.

    He leads them to the playoffs for a third time in his four NFL seasons, after becoming the first player to amass 4,000-plus passing yards and 700-plus rushing yards in a single campaign.

    At Foxborough in Week 16, Allen beat the Pats mostly with his head and arm, patiently taking check downs and, when necessary, delivering back-foot strikes on crossing routes. But he also hurt them with his feet, rushing 12 times for 64 yards, including a long gain of 25 and a back-breaking pickup of eight on a late 4th-and-1.

    Back home a week later vs. Atlanta, Allen struggled through three interceptions, faced a halftime deficit and more or less took over on the ground. He carried 15 times for 81 yards and two touchdowns.

    Whether at the behest of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll on designed plays or strictly taking off at his own discretion, Allen’s running ability proved invaluable in the season’s final weeks.

    “They trust him,” says Patriots defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington. “I think in the most critical times and gotta-have-it situations, they want the ball in his hand, whether he’s throwing it or running it. So with Buffalo, you know, with their head coach [Sean McDermott] and their offensive coordinator, they want the ball in his hand, and I would say that’s a good person to have the ball in his hand.”

  • Year 1 for “Mac-10”

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 26: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots throws the ball as Efe Obada #93 of the Buffalo Bills looks to block the pass during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 26: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots throws the ball as Efe Obada #93 of the Buffalo Bills looks to block the pass during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

    The sports information service Stats Perform, formerly Stats, Inc., notes that Patriots quarterback Mac Jones’s totals of 3,801 passing yards and 22 touchdown passes were matched or surpassed in NFL history by only three other rookies: Andrew Luck (2012) Jameis Winston (2015) and Justin Herbert (2020).

    At the same time, Jones, who finished 2021 with a .676 completion rate — the second-best by a rookie, behind Dak Prescott’s .678 in 2016 — completed just 59.9 percent of his passes during a 1-3 season-ending stretch. That four-game mark ranked 32nd out of 40 qualifying quarterbacks.

    Meanwhile, according to Pro Football Focus, as one would expect of a young quarterback, Jones was most troubled all season by pressure. When throwing from what PFF terms a ‘clean pocket,’ he completed 71.9% and was intercepted once per 31.8 passes. But facing what PFF defines as pressure, Jones’s numbers dipped to a 53.7% completion rate and 1-t0-16.5 interception ratio.

    Now Jones faces the league’s best pass defense, with its ability to both confuse and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Keys to both are Bills safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.

    MORE: Patriots vs. Bills Key Matchups

    “You see the effort that they play with when you play against the team,” Jones said Wednesday as he prepared to confront Buffalo for a third time. “They definitely play with effort. They’re never going to quit and they fly to the ball and all that. You watch it on tape and you kind of see it on the field. That’s what they do really well.

    “I think there’s really good disguise in the NFL and, obviously, this defense does a really good job. Like I said before, just between the two safeties, they just have a lot of experience in terms of years of just playing the position in the NFL, almost as long as I’ve been alive. They’re really experienced and then they’re also really great players. You add that all together and that’s kind of what you see on tape. That’s what you see when you play against them. They play with great energy and they’re great football players.”

    For the record, Hyde and Poyer have been in the NFL a combined 18 seasons. Not quite the 23 years Jones has been alive, but certainly long enough to confound any quarterback, young and old alike.