Patriots vs. Ravens: Aqib Talib a Key Difference for New England in Rematch
The two teams are becoming that familiar with one another, but these are not the same two teams that took the field in the 2011 AFC Championship Game a year ago, or in Week 3 this season.
There are many reasons for that; Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb will not be playing, but just as important could be the fresh face to the game: Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib.
Devin McCourty's presence at safety helped slow the bleeding, but it wasn't until the arrival of Talib that things really settled down.
Joe Flacco had his biggest day as a starting quarterback in Week 3 against the Patriots. The Ravens looked to exploit New England's early weaknesses in defending the deep ball, and Flacco hit on five of 10 throws of 20 yards or more.
Since Talib's arrival, though, the Patriots secondary has dramatically improved against the long ball.
Talib may not be covering Smith all day, or at all with Anquan Boldin on the other side of the field, but simply having him on the field allows the Patriots to do things in coverage that they couldn't do in their previous meeting with the Ravens.
Take the aforementioned touchdown, for example.
The Patriots were in a two-deep zone coverage with men on the outsides. Cornerback Kyle Arrington was singled up on Smith on the top of the screen, and safety Patrick Chung was designated in deep coverage on the play.
Chung got caught peeking into the backfield, or staring down tight end Ed Dickson running a seam route directly at him. Flacco took advantage of the man coverage on the outside with no safety help, and threw it up for Smith to track it down.
Although he has improved since moving to the slot, Arrington is not known for his great man coverage skills on the outside. Having him out there on an island left him exposed to big plays.
The "knock" on Talib when he joined the Patriots was that he's not a well-rounded cornerback. He is almost strictly a man-to-man corner, lining up directly over a team's best receiver. It's no surprise, then, that the Patriots began playing a lot more man coverage when he joined the team.
Whom should Aqib Talib cover more often?
His ability to stay close to receivers will come in handy against a Ravens offense that picked up a whopping 135 yards after the catch (35.3 percent of their receiving total on the day) against the Patriots in the last go-around.
Rarely does a big play get completed against him, and only twice has he allowed a touchdown with the Patriots, both coming in the team's Week 11 rout over the Colts.
Since then, he has allowed just one catch of 20 yards or more.
His individual performances are of note, but the biggest difference it has made is in the play of the safeties. McCourty is still a big key to a Patriots playoff run, but he is only even playing safety because the presence of Talib allows it.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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