FOXBOROUGH, Mass.—As the Patriots have returned to their perch atop the NFL, it's their once-stale defense that has shucked its slow feet. It is younger, faster and stronger, and no one player better epitomizes that than Devin McCourty.
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Devin McCourty returns an interception for a touchdown against the Lions earlier this season.
A late first-round pick out of Rutgers, the rookie has been a veritable rock star, starting every game at cornerback and prompting Jets coach Rex Ryan to warn against throwing his way in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game. Mr. McCourty has picked off seven passes, he's a finalist for the league's defensive rookie of the year award and in this zygote stage of his career, he's already snagged an invitation to the Pro Bowl.
Oh, and by the way, there's two of him: Jason McCourty, Mr. McCourty's 27-minute younger identical twin brother, is a cornerback with the Tennessee Titans.
"My coach was watching film of the Chargers against the Patriots and he said to me, 'It's amazing—y'all look like the exact same player,'" Jason said.
Sitting next to his brother in a Foxborough, Mass., restaurant, Devin McCourty doesn't react. It's not the first time someone's said that, and he knows it won't be the last.
Six years ago, it was Devin who was seemingly hovering in Jason's shadow. Natives of Nanuet, N.Y., both brothers played at St. Joseph's of Montvale in Bergen County, N.J.. Jason was a running back and cornerback, Devin a wide receiver and safety. Jason had multiple Division I scholarship offers, Devin had one, to Rutgers.
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Devin and brother Jason, who plays cornerback, too, for the Tennessee Titans.
Both brothers went to Rutgers. Jason played as a true freshman, Devin was redshirted and nearly left.
"I didn't like being alone," he said.
The next year, Devin got to go on the road trips. Jason was one starting corner, Devin the nickelback. The following two years, they started at opposite corners.
Jason came out first. The Titans took him in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He started three games last year and six this year, before a broken hand against the Giants limited him.
Devin, meanwhile, followed his brother as a Rutgers captain and had a breakout senior season. The extra year of development helped, as did the constant mention of his extremely well-thought of NFL-playing brother.
"Everyone always says, 'Oh Jason helped Devin so much.' I think they say that so I don't feel bad he was a first-round pick," Jason says, even as this time Devin does react—with an eye roll.
See, there aren't ever bad feelings between these two. They are almost absurdly supportive of each other. Devin says Jason ran a faster official 40-yard time (4.30 to 4.38) and Jason immediately says Devin's unofficial time was a 4.32.
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McCourty family photo
Jason (l) and Devin McCourty at the Senior Bowl in January, 2010 in Mobile, Alabama.
Jason says Devin has shown an incredible ability to locate the ball this year. Devin says Jason plays in a different defensive scheme, one that hasn't yet shown off his best assets.
Devin has the $13 million contract ($7 million of which is guaranteed). Jason's contract is $1.8 million (less than $90,000 of which was guaranteed), but Jason says, "It's just more money in the family."
From the time they were small, classmates have tried to pit them against each other in a constant game of who's better. From the time they were small, they've refused.
"We always wanted to be on the same team," Jason says.
And Devin really did turn to Jason all through his draft-preparation process.
"While I was training, I would call him and say, 'Yo, we're doing this and this and this. Did you do this?'" Devin says. "He had the best Pro Day of any corner, and we have the same body. So I figured what worked for him would work for me."
The pair did end up with almost identical measurables, a year apart. They're both 5-foot-11, both weighed in at 193 pounds. Devin had one more bench press, Jason had a half-inch higher vertical jump. Devin's broad jump was an inch further, Jason ran everything a smidgen faster.
"When you're twins, everyone's always looking for differences. The ones they see are usually wrong," Jason says.
Of course, experiences do shape them. Because Jason played so young in college, he perhaps had to be more cautious. Because Devin racked up several game-changing plays when he first played in college, he's always taken more risks.
"I would've loved to see Jason not only in his fifth year, but every year before that with the benefit of the extra training Devin got his redshirt year," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said Thursday. "Not only did Devin have the extra year to play, but he had that extra year at the front end. I'm not saying Jason would've definitely been a first- round pick, too, but I don't think he would've been a sixth-round pick."
Then as now, so much is opportunity. Their approach, their bodies and yes, their skill sets are the same. But Devin has absolutely flourished in a Patriots system that's tailor-made for him. He's smart enough to grasp the multiple coverages and coach Bill Belichick said the grinders Mr. Schiano develops is the kind he wants as well.
Add to that the fact that the 14-2 Patriots have had more Sunday and Monday night game dates than the slumping Titans did this year. And the Patriots are still alive, which is why the Jets' Braylon Edwards got to say he has a personal nemesis in Devin McCourty this week and why Jason is up here, sleeping in one of Devin's spare bedrooms.
Always identical, the only physical difference in the pair used to be a scar on the bridge of Devin's nose. They look more dissimilar now, though, for more than the scruff on Devin's chin.
"It's age and stress," Devin says. "I'm stressed."
The Patriots do go about their business differently. They tackle most weeks in practice (the Titans, like many NFL teams, rarely do) and coach Bill Belichick's demands are legendary. Generally staid, Mr. Belichick was actually animated in his praise of Mr. McCourty's consistency and maturity this week.
The McCourtys are only the 11th set of twins to play in the NFL. Both start, both have huge futures and yet it's only a handful of players and fans alike who know they're here in the league, and that they're twins. Then again, that may not be for long.
"Everyone who doesn't know will know soon," veteran Patriots safety James Sanders said. "They really do look like the same player."