FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- THE WAY Aqib Talib undercut the receiver and intercepted Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman in the waning seconds of Sunday’s first half made it look as though he knew which play was coming. Afterward, the cornerback said that indeed he did. And the immediate assumption was that he did because he played for the Buccaneers last season before being traded to the Patriots.
But not so fast.
“I was only with the team last year for four weeks,” Talib said, “so a lot of what I had a good grasp on came from watching tape this year.”
Watching tape is part of the job, obviously. But it’s the part of the job that Talib has not always been good about. On the field there were never really any questions, but when the Bucs sent Talib and a seventh-round pick to the Pats in exchange for a fourth-round choice last November, the knock was that New England was getting a player with character issues who didn’t have terrific work ethic, and whose commitment to football was questionable.
So when he makes a play like the one he made Sunday, which the Pats quickly converted into a field goal en route to a 23-3 win, it suggests that since coming to a winning organization with an established structure Talib may have finally seen the light that could lead him to the realization of his by-all-accounts-vast potential. And thus the Patriots might finally have a cover man on the outside capable of completing changing their defense.
“Aqib did a great job,” Coach Bill Belichick said. “He worked hard, had a good week of preparation. He had a real good week of practice and it showed up in the game. He made that play in practice — the interception — a couple times just the way it turned out in the game. It’s a good example of practicing well leads to the game performance.”
That’s right. Aqib Talib has become the example for his fellow Patriots defenders to follow, not only on game day but throughout the week leading up. He became that exemplar through this spring and summer, when the free agent signed a one-year deal to remain with New England, then did the work necessary to win one of the 10 offseason workout awards honors that the team doles out to reward players for their effort and hard work.
Talib’s prize was a coveted front-row parking spot at Gillette Stadium. But the real winner has been the team. Through three games he has three interceptions and three pass defenses, he’s forced a fumble, and he’s been beat so infrequently that he’s needed to make only eight tackles despite having played all but one of New England’s defensive snaps.
Sunday ‘s performance was particularly impressive, and, in essence, dictated the way the Patriots could play defense. Each time Tampa broke its huddle, Talib would go wherever Vincent Jackson went, the Patriots trusting him to take away the Bucs’ biggest threat and the cornerback meeting that challenge, allowing Jackson just three catches for 34 yards before exiting with a rib injury. That allowed the other 10 players to focus elsewhere without having to worry much about helping on Jackson.
“It’s great,” said safety Steve Gregory. “Being able to put him on him, and know that he’s going to be able to handle him pretty good, that’s definitely a big thing, a big addition to our defense.”
It’s a big enough addition that a Patriots defense much maligned over the past few years actually entered Monday Night Football second stingiest in all of football in terms of points allowed (11.3) and opponents’ passer rating (58.7). Its enemies are completing only 50.5 percent of the passes they throw (ranking second in the NFL), gaining just 5.8 yards per toss (third), and 188.3 yards per game (seventh).
And Talib’s influence on that success could be even bigger in the weeks to come. Next up for New England is Atlanta and Julio Jones. Then it’s Cincinnati and A.J. Green. Then it’s New Orleans and Marques Colston. Then later in the year there will be matchups with the big-play receivers of the Dolphins, Broncos, Texans and Ravens.
With that schedule, and in today’s NFL, it’s imperative that a defense has a cornerback capable of confronting those types of talents — and it finally appears that the Patriots do. Save for the second half of Devin McCourty’s rookie season, not since Asante Samuel have the Pats had a cover man of Talib’s caliber, the type who can make the rest of the secondary and the pass rush look better while giving the coaches a chance to be a bit more aggressive in their schemes.
The only question is whether he can keep it up at this level. Whether he remains so committed. He’s got plenty of motivation, as if he does there’s probably a big contract waiting for him at the end of the year, and it could well come from the Patriots if he convinces that them the player he’s been over the first three weeks is the player he’ll be moving forward.
That the approach that helped him Sunday is in fact representative of his future, with all the questions that prompted his exit from Tampa just part of his past.
“We’re working, man,” Talib said. “We come in every day and we’ll let you all be the judge (of) the improvements and all that other stuff. We just come to work every day, study this tape, get the gameplan and go in.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.