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Bill Belichick often preaches consistency, but through the first eight games of the season, his Patriots defense was consistently mediocre and looked like the team’s weak link in its quest for another Lombardi Trophy. Enter Aqib Talib, the much maligned but talented young cornerback, acquired from the Buccaneers on Nov. 1 for a 2013 fourth round draft pick (the Patriots also received the Buccaneers 2013 7th round pick in the deal).
The trade not only addressed a struggling secondary, but had a trickle-down affect on the entire defense, leading to a more aggressive style of play. Talib has suited up for the Pats for the past four games, and so far, so good.
One of the few criticisms of Bill Belichick that have been cited regularly over the past few years has been his perceived stubbornness, especially his tendencies to trade down on draft day and play exceedingly conservative on defense. The former of those two notions was dispelled before the season started, when Belichick traded up twice in the first round of the draft to select Chandler Jones and Donta’ Hightower.
The latter has been more recently addressed, starting with Talib’s acquisition. Somewhere during the first half of the season, Belichick grew tired of watching opposing quarterbacks sit back in a comfortable pocket and pick apart the Patriots secondary. Without a solidified back end or the ability to create consistent pressure with four rushers, Belichick realized a personnel shift was imperative to make the necessary schematic adjustments. With Talib, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have dialed up more blitzes over the last four games, and the combination of more pressure on the quarterback and better coverage in the secondary has been evident.
Adding one good player to a defense usually helps, but in Talib’s case, his presence has truly changed the Patriots defensive approach. According to Field Yates of ESPNBoston, New England has sent five or more pass rushers 33% of the times over the last four games since adding Talib, over a 100% increase from the 15% of the time they sent five or more rushers during the first nine games of the year. The results of this increase in pressure are statistically favorable, as the Patriots have given up and average of 18.25 points per game post Talib trade, opposed to the 22.33 points per game pre-Talib.
However, perhaps the most encouraging sign has been how the Patriots have looked on the field, not just what the numbers say. Over the past month with Talib as the number one cornerback, Devin McCourty has been moved to safety, where he looks much more comfortable. Aggresive rookie Alfonzo Dennard has secured the number two cornerback spot, shifting Kyle Arrington to the slot corner, which suits him much better than lining up on the outside. Captain Jerod Mayo has especially benefitted from the new look D, moving around the line of scrimmage and blitzing more and more from his inside linebacker position. Opposing quarterbacks are getting hit with regularity, and are being forced to make throws into tight windows. Best of all, we are seeing less of the soft zone coverage that has aggravated Patriots fans over the last few years. Aqib Talib may not be Darrelle Revis, but it looks like the impact he has on an entire defense mirrors that of his New York counterpart.
Only time will tell if Aqib Talib truly was the difference maker Bill Belichick was looking for when pulling the trigger on that early November trade. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a day in January or February when number 12 isn’t quite immortal, and the defense needs to make a stop in the fourth quarter to win a game.
And maybe, Aqib, which means “the last one,” in Arabic, will be just that, the last piece of the puzzle in bringing some hardware back to Foxboro.