FOXBORO -- In four short days, Aqib Talib has gone from cornerback to Internet meme.
After knocking away a Matt Ryan pass for Roddy White with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Falcons -- a pass that would have tied the game -- Talib was spotted lounging on the bench, looking immensely pleased with himself. It quickly became an Internet favorite. The picture has become the defining image of the New England defense to this point in the season for several reasons, not the least of which is that, in truth, it’s hard to recall the last time a Patriots defender has done something in such a big moment that warranted such a self-satisfied look.
Ultimately, Talib’s pose put the exclamation point on a dominant evening. According to Pro Football Focus, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw in Talib’s direction on seven occasions Sunday night and failed to complete a single pass. It wasn’t a perfect evening -- Talib was flagged for a 38-yard pass interference call, his first penalty of the season -- but it was as good a performance as any New England defensive back has turned in in some time around these parts, and sparked a feeling that, now that he’s been in the system for a full offseason, the Patriots defense has added the sort of puzzle piece it’s been missing for the last several seasons: an elite corner.
“I don’t think you can name the top corners without naming him,” fellow defensive back Devin McCourty said of Talib, who was acquired 11 months ago this week. “I think last year he was just thrown into the fire, and a lot of things he had to learn on the run. This year, he’s been able to go out there and play football.”
After four games last season, the Patriots were allowing an average of 281.5 passing yards per game. This year, after having Talib in the system for a full offseason, it’s 241 yards per game. The same is true when you’re talking about points per game -- it’s dipped from 23 through four games last year to 14.3 through four games in 2013. Working as the outside corner, Talib’s veteran savvy, skill set and long frame -- his 6-foot-2, 202-pound body is punctuated by the longest wingspan in Boston sports this side of Rajon Rondo -- allow him to work nicely against the opposition’s longest and most physical receiver.
It’s not all Talib, of course. Bill Belichick points out just how good a job the Patriots are doing when it comes to team defense in this video breakdown. And the strength of schedule figures into it as well -- a breakdown reveals the first four games of the 2012 season were slightly tougher than the 2013 slate.
But it’s hard to deny the correlation between Talib’s arrival and the improved play on defense. Simply put, his abilities allow the New England defense to do things it couldn't before, including the full-time move of McCourty to safety, as well as Kyle Arrington to the slot.
“Aqib has done a good job for us -- a real good job,” Belichick said of the 27-year-old. “Smart player, good communicator, really competes hard, really competes well every day in practice and competes well on the field, whatever he’s asked to do -- man coverage, zone coverage, tackling, special teams. Whatever it is, he really works hard, competes hard, and a smart guy with good skills. He’s a good football player. He communicates well with his teammates. He’s one of our offseason award-winners, so he’s put in a lot of hard work and he’s had some good results.”
Talib has four interceptions through his first four games -- good for a share of the league lead with Tennessee defensive back Alterraun Verner and Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso. (He’s second in the league in passes defensed, trailing Verner 12-11.) It’s likely he’ll drop off the pace between now and the end of the year, but with one-quarter of the season in the books, he’s on pace for 16 picks, which would set a franchise record (Ron Hall set the record with 11 in 1964).
At the same time, his performance over the first four games hasn’t been perfect, at least by his own estimation.
“We can definitely get better,” Talib said. “Y’all look at all the positive stuff. When kind of watch the tapes, we kind of take the negative and see how we can get better. We applaud the positives, but we really look at the negatives and see how we can get better.”
“We came away with, I think, one turnover [against the Falcons]. We feel like we should come away with more turnovers,” he added. “We come away with one turnover, we feel like we should have come away with more turnovers. We come away with one turnover, we feel like we should come away with three. ‘How can we get three turnovers or four turnovers? How can we score a touchdown?’ We’re always looking for ways to get better.”
Despite the sense of modesty -- yep, this man is capable of modesty -- he certainly belongs as part of a debate regarding Defensive Player of the Year candidates. The idea of a New England defensive back as a DPOY candidate in the post-Asante Samuel era is about as likely as hearing “Adam Sandler” and “Academy Award” in the same sentence. (No New England player has ever won the award, which dates back to 1971.) But four games in, Talib is part of a group that includes Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman (love him or hate him, he has a knack for big plays in important moments), Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt (the 2012 winner has 3.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits this season) and Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston (the AFC Defensive Player of the Month after compiling 7.5 sacks).
If you go deeper inside the numbers, Talib’s advanced stats are amazing for any defensive back. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been thrown at 20 times this year and allowed six completed passes for a 30 percent completion rate, the best total for any starting corner in the league. He’s second to Verner when it comes to QB rating on passes that have gone in his direction (Verner is at 12.9, and Talib's at 24.9). And while Talib hasn’t been matched in single coverage against the opposition’s leading receiver on every play of the first four games, No. 1 receivers against the Patriots this season are averaging 5.5 catches, 58 yards and less than one touchdown a game.
“He’s been huge,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo. “Anytime you can kind of cancel out a guy, it’s always huge for the defense. Aqib is going out and [has] made big plays for us as well, with the interceptions and the big pass breakups late in the game. [Sunday] night that breakup in the end zone was huge for us. [It] won us the game. He’s been great for us.”
Going forward, it’s not going to get any easier for Talib, who next must deal with the 6-foot-4, 207-pound AJ Green (26 catches, 300 yards, three touchdowns), a receiver who boasts a skill set the equal of Jones, Vincent Jackson or Stevie Johnson, three receivers who already have been shut down by Talib. And while there’s some question about Talib's future -- he signed a one-year deal to return to the Patriots this offseason, and will cash in big time if he keeps up this pace -- he certainly sounds like a New Englander.
“I just go one week at a time, man. Last week is last week. Future weeks are future weeks,” he said when asked about Green. “This week, we have Cincinnati. That’s all I’m worried about.”