There was a lot of criticism heaped on the Patriots when they traded a fourth-round pick in 2013 for troubled cornerback Aqib Talib and a seventh-round pick. But after watching how terrible the Patriots were in pass coverage on Sunday, you can’t really blame them for jumping on the deal.
The transition from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the New England Patriots may not be an easy one if Bill Belichick continues to employ a defense that shows zone and man coverages depending on down and scenario. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard struggled in his first few snaps with the Patriots in differentiating between the two, and bungled a play in the preseason where he thought he was supposed to play zone on the right side of the field, but instead he was supposed to man up with Jerrel Jernigan. He got a tongue lashing from Belichick on the sideline after the play.
Talib is at his best when he’s playing in press man coverage, and since it’s easier for a new player to pick up, that’s likely what the Patriots will play early in Talib’s New England career. That’s a very good thing for the Patriots’ struggling pass defense. Remember all those wide open receivers we saw against both the Jets and Bills? Those are massive holes in the Patriots’ zone defense. The Patriots’ linebackers simply can’t cover enough ground, no matter how instinctive they are, and their lack of reaction time leaves players wide open.
If the Patriots switch to a man defense — and if we’re lucky, press man — they can use their physical nature to throw off timing against opposing offenses. Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes can run with opposing tight ends, but they struggle when they’re asked to react and catch up when they’re playing four to five yards off.
If Patrick Chung can come back, a switch to a man-heavy defense could also mean more of a switch to a cover-one. That would put Devin McCourty back at free safety, with Chung helping out in the short to intermediate area of the field at strong safety. In zone coverages, they Patriots have essentially had two players playing deep at free safety. On Sunday, we saw McCourty and Steve Gregory in that role frequently. The Patriots need as much help as they can get in the middle of the field, and having Chung there to account for the linebackers’ lack of speed would help immensely.
The Patriots’ new addition is so talented, New England can essentially put Talib on an island. His sole duty will be to cover his side of the field. McCourty would then be able to help out over the top on the other side, where either Dennard or Kyle Arrington will be starting. The best possible Patriots’ secondary would likely be a cover-one with McCourty and Chung at safety, Talib and Dennard starting outside and Marquice Cole in the slot. Belichick loves Arrington — especially his run defense — so chances are, we won’t see that happen.
The Patriots now have no excuse for lack of talent in their secondary. If the team still fails with Talib, it means there are massive flaws in the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Some players like Mayo and Vince Wilfork seem to be able to avoid criticism, but both players are part of the Patriots’ problems in pass defense. Wilfork shouldn’t be playing the three-technique defensive tackle position that’s supposed to be rushing the quarterback, and Mayo shouldn’t be playing weak-side linebacker — a position that usually goes to a player strong in pass coverage. Belichick values run defense so heavily though, that we’ll likely never see those players taken off the field on third down — and the same goes for Arrington.
Talib will be a good test for the Patriots, as will Andrew Luck and the Colts’ passing offense on Sunday. If the Patriots still struggle mightily, we may not see this defense fixed all season.