The mutual early realization that they were competing against receivers more than each other fostered a great friendship and continues to shape their approach in preparing for and playing in each game.
|Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty have 36 passes defensed through 13 games in 2013, which is one shy of the best total between starting cornerbacks in the Titans' era.|
“I think we’re two good guys and we don’t mind competition, we don’t mind trying to get better because at the end of the day, we both want to win,” Verner said. “Jason’s just been a mentor since I’ve been here, and we’ve just had a bond. It’s kind of hard to explain but he’s somebody I definitely enjoy playing with.”
McCourty and Verner through most of 2013 have been a consistently stingy tandem, which is essential as offenses keep adding skilled players at wide receiver, and that will be the case Sunday with Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd posing threats for the Cardinals.
Each player watches film on his own during the week, and they get together for informal sessions on Fridays, Saturdays and even before the game to swap some notes for what they’ve found and think will be helpful on the field.
On most plays, there is a considerable amount of yardage across the field between each of them but they have learned to read body language and positioning before the snap and communicate the ways that receivers are trying to attack them from series to series.
“The cool thing with me and Vern is at the end of the week we’ll kind of come together and talk about what we’ve seen throughout the week in our private studies,” McCourty said. “Then, in between series, we’ll always talk about what routes he got on that side versus what I got and maybe the way this receiver released versus another guy so we’re always talking and trying to make adjustments.”
Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, a former cornerback, said he sees the commitment McCourty and Verner have to each other.
“You want to make sure when you’re playing corner, your buddy is over there playing just as hard as you are and he’s making plays just like you do,” Gray said.
Before the snap, McCourty and Verner take a quick look at the other to see if the other is pressing his man at the line of scrimmage or playing off because it could influence a decision by the opposing quarterback.
It’s part of implementing the plan that McCourty and Verner craft for each play according to the coverage the defense is in, the skillset and body type of the receiver and the situation of the game.
“The way you may press Andre Johnson may not be the same way you press a T.Y. Hilton, so that’s just one thing during the week that you’ve really got to study what guys do within their routes and what they try to do as an offense to be able to compete against them,” McCourty said. “You definitely have to have a different plan, and sometimes it’s trying to be more physical at the line of scrimmage and other times, against those bigger guys, you may just want to shadow them and out-quick them.”
The players have developed together since 2010 when McCourty was looking for an expanded role in his second season and Verner was a rookie.
McCourty won the spot opposite Cortland Finnegan to start that season but suffered a broken arm while making an interception against the New York Giants in Week 3. Verner stepped in and responded to the challenge, collecting 10 tackles in his first start against Denver and a key interception the following week at Dallas. The injury cost McCourty four weeks, and the level of play that Verner delivered led coaches to leave him in the spot and shift McCourty to nickel.
“It was really a tribute to him because defenses were attacking a rookie guy, and he made play after play after play,” McCourty said. “It was one of those feelings where you hate the fact you can’t be out there helping the team but if you see one of your guys going out there and really making a name for himself and playing well, you’re proud and you’re happy for him, so since then, we’ve just continued to grow.”
In 2011, McCourty and Finnegan started, and the Titans shifted Finnegan to nickel when they brought in Verner. After Finnegan’s departure, Tennessee turned to McCourty and Verner in 2012. With McCourty essentially a lock for one spot this offseason, Verner was challenged in a competitive training camp and held onto the job by raising his game.
Prior to the season, Gray predicted that Verner may be more frequently tested than McCourty, who had four interceptions in 2012 and remembered a similar situation when he was challenged more than Finnegan. Gray’s forecast seemed to happen at the start of the season, but Verner nabbed four interceptions in the Titans’ first four games, prompting offenses to consider going elsewhere with the football.
Verner (23) and McCourty (13) have combined for 36 passes defensed this season, which is one behind the highest total between two starting cornerbacks during the Titans era (1999-present). Finnegan (20) and Harper (17) set the high mark in 2008. Verner, who has five interceptions, said he still expects to be challenged “anytime I’m out there.”
“Jason is really good and is very technically sound so I always feel like they’re going to go at me. I think more of the time, I look over at what he’s doing so it will be harder for them to decide where to go because if he’s pressing and I’m off, they’ll probably go attack me, and if he’s off and I’m on, then they’re probably going to go after him, so I like to mimic what he’s doing so they can’t get a read.”
Given three traits to describe one another, McCourty said Verner is “instinctive, quick, intelligent,” and Verner said McCourty is “tough, smart and a leader.”
Titans secondary coach Brett Maxie said McCourty has a few more athletic gifts but each has played at a level that’s drawn praise from opposing coaches. Maxie said the strongest shared trait is “superior football character.”
“Under that umbrella, you can see they’re both true pros and there’s a lot that goes into being a pro,” Maxie said. “They’re passionate about what they do and it shows up on Sunday and during the week of preparation.”
Maxie said McCourty and Verner have done a great job of leading younger players at the position by example, and although pass defense receives a significant amount of attention when assessing cornerbacks, both are solid against the run and have the ability to manage a game to neutralize the talents of opponents.
Maxie said the amount of respect both players have for one another “jumps out at you” and is a major reason each player has made the tandem stronger.
“They respect one another’s craft and how they go about their business, in terms of being a pro, and there’s something to be said about that type of character,” Maxie said. “One, it’s important to them, and if it’s important to you, you’re going to put the effort in to try to be the best you can be at your position.”