FOXBORO — By any defensive metric you want to use, the New England Patriots pass defense improved over the course of the 2012 season.
Much of that can be traced back to the acquisition of Aqib Talib in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and while Talib didn’t reinvent the position, his arrival allowed the Patriots to maximize the strengths of many of the defensive backs who were already on the roster.
New England moved Devin McCourty from corner to safety, and the Rutgers product flourished. Kyle Arrington was kicked inside to work as the slot corner, a far more natural spot. Working with then-rookie Alfonzo Dennard on the other island opposite Talib, the group of corners were transformed.
While the Patriots preach team defense more than almost all of the other teams, it was hard not to notice the fact that the New England pass defense improved significant after Talib came aboard.
In the nine games the 2012 Patriots played without Talib, they gave up 49 passes of 20-or-more yards, 15 of 30-or-more. In the seven games after he arrived, New England allowed only 25 passes of 20-or-more yards and only seven of 30-plus.
And that includes the Jacksonville game, when Talib was in on only eight plays because of a hip injury (and Chad Henne threw for 350 yards) and Miami, where he didn’t play at all.
Despite the improved numbers, Talib takes no credit for the turnaround.
“Man, we all just played together man, and tried to improve and get the job done,” he said. “If every individual gets their job done, in the end, it looks good for the team.”
The New England defense includes a possible Hall of Fame candidate in Vince Wilfork and game-changers like Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and McCourty.
But over the last year, it’s clear that while there are others who might be better pure football players, the 27-year-old Talib is the most important part of the Patriots’ defensive scheme—the first real cornerback of impact since Asante Samuel departed Foxboro at the end of the 2007 season.
All you need to do to measure his worth to the team is to rewatch the games he skipped last season. He struggled with injury at times last year, and when he was out, in many ways, it was a domino effect, as the pass defense was exposed as a result.
Look at the tape of the AFC title game for a reminder, as to what life would be like without Talib. When he went down with an injury, New England was up, 3-0, with 5:15 left in the first quarter, and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was 1-of-4 for 17 yards. From that point on, Flacco went 20-of-32 for 222 yards and three touchdowns and ended up 21-of-36 for 240 yards and a 106.2 passer rating.
And now, as the New England defense preps for the 2013 regular season, Talib's position and his presence make him incredibly important to the success of the New England defense. While other defensive standouts players have more impressive resumes, Talib is the most important piece of the puzzle—in many ways, his play holds the key to just how good the Patriots defense could be in 2013.
And according to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, so far, so good.
“[I’m] very, very happy with his work and his ethic in that he comes in as far as this guy studies film, he really practices hard, he competes every day,” Patricia said of Talib, who signed a one-year, $5 million contract—a show-me deal—to return to New England this offseason.
“He’s a good example on the field for those guys who are coming into the program to get in behind him and follow along. It’s been good to have him through training camp.”
He’s yielded one bad play all summer, a touchdown pass from Michael Vick to DeSean Jackson in the first preseason game. But after that, it was lights out, as he was nearly perfect for the rest of the preseason.
And over the course of training camp, Talib could be heard clearly barking out orders to other defenders, putting them where they needed to be and generally running the show when it comes to coverage schemes.
“We all do that. We all try and do that,” he said of the talking that goes on between the defensive backs. “That’s communication out there. I say stuff to the safeties to make sure I’m in the right place sometimes. They say stuff to me to make sure I’m right sometimes. We all just have to be on the same page, so we do a bunch of talking out there.”
Contrary to popular belief, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib is not a pure shutdown corner, but he does offer a certain amount of length the Patriots have been lacking in their defensive backs over the last few years. (Basically, the cornerback the Patriots thought they were getting when they drafted Ras-I Dowling.)
And while he wasn’t always matched up with the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver last season, his size and physical presence make him an excellent counterpoint to some of the league’s bigger targets, like Boldin and Andre Johnson.
And after a positive finish to the 2012 season where he finished with 19 tackles, two passes defense and a pick, he’s had a chance to spend an entire offseason in the New England program. In turn, that’s clearly led to an increased level of comfort within the scheme.
“It helps. It helps you feel more comfortable,” he said of having a full offseason in the system. “When [Jerod] Mayo makes a check, you’re used to hearing that check all camp, so it just clicks a little bit quicker. It’s definitely beneficial.
“We’ve played together for a little bit longer period now,” Talib said. “We kind of know how each other play a little more, we know how each other makes calls and what calls they are going to make. I would say it’s a little bit better.”
Talib’s presence stabilizes the secondary, and if he does miss any time this season, it’s clear that the delicately crafted positioning at the top of the cornerback depth chart—with Talib on one island, Dennard on the other and Arrington in the slot—could collapse like a house of cards.
But in the meantime, his presence in the secondary brings a level of comfort and sparks a renewed belief that the Patriots defense could continue the momentum it found late last season when Talib was healthy. If so, the franchise will be able to point to the $5 million it spent to bring back the corner as money well spent.