FOXBORO — It was third and two at the Tampa Bay 11-yard line when Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston took a shotgun snap with 9:53 left to play against the Patriots in Week 5.
Winston hit DeSean Jackson in stride with a short pass over the middle and the super-swift receiver quickly zipped through the New England secondary. Jackson was going, going … but not gone.
Devin McCourty made sure of that.
The eighth-year safety’s relentless, high-speed pursuit paid off as he made a touchdown-saving tackle of Jackson at the New England 48 to mitigate the damage of the 41-yard catch-and-run. The drive ultimately ended with a missed field goal and the Patriots eventually hung on for a 19-14 victory.
“It was an extremely outstanding hustle play for Devin McCourty and that’s what he does,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “Devin runs all over the field. He plays extremely hard the entire game. It’s certainly something that as a teammate and as a coach you’re looking at and you really appreciate and you really try to strive to play that same style.”
That was one of 11 tackles — one off his career high — McCourty made against the Bucs, pushing his season total to 42 per NFL record keeping. He’s on pace to finish with 134 tackles, which would obliterate his career high of 94, set in 2011.
McCourty is tied for seventh in the league in tackles and is one of three defensive backs in the top 20. He’s tied for the league lead in solo tackles with 37.
“I’ve always truly believed that in the secondary most of your tackles are going to be open-field or one-on-one,” McCourty said of those solo shots. “You have to break down and get a guy down any way you can, whether it’s grabbing a leg or wrapping him. So I’ve always tried to focus on that at both the college and pro level.”
For the 5-foot-10, 195-pound McCourty it’s anyway, anyhow, anywhere.
“Honestly, I don’t believe tackling is something you work on,” he said. “You just have to understand leverage and get a guy down. If you look at most of my tackles, they’re not the highlight, prettiest tackles you’ll see. It’s just getting in front of a guy, getting him down and making sure he doesn’t escape and break away.”
Part of the reason McCourty, who had 78 tackles in 16 games last season, has seen a surge in his stats is because he’s been deployed closer to the line of scrimmage this season, affording him more opportunities. He typically had played in the middle of the field since moving from cornerback to safety fulltime in 2013.
And McCourty, a seven-time team captain who has won two Super Bowls and been selected to three Pro Bowls, has fully capitalized on those opportunities, as generally has been the case since he was drafted 27th overall by the Patriots in 2010.
“Well, Devin’s a very good tackler, always has been,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s got good quickness, good playing strength and a good feel for the ball. He’s fast. He’s made some of those tackles in space pursuit from behind (like on Jackson) that a lot of other guys might not make because of his excellent speed at the position.
“Tackling’s a lot about technique and good fundamentals, putting yourself in a good positon and having the strength to wrap up and get the runners on the ground.”
Belichick compared McCourty and fellow safety Patrick Chung favorably with Rodney Harrison. He placed his two current players a notch below Harrison, who played here from 2003 to ’08 and is being touted by Belichick as worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“They’re very dependable,” Belichick said. “They’re very good in space, which those are hard tackles sometimes when good runners have space to operate. They do a real good job there. Not just running backs with size, but receivers with speed and quickness. They get opportunities with a lot of different types of players. Devin’s done a great job for us.”
The Patriots have a number of defensive problems, but one they won’t have to solve is McCourty when it comes to tackling.