Aqib Talib Must Improve on Slow Start to Patriots Career for New England to Stop Andre Johnson on Monday Night

Aqib Talib, Andre JohnsonThe Patriots’ pass defense has improved since Aqib Talib came to Foxboro, but surprisingly, he’s been the weak link in the New England secondary.

It will be key for Talib to play the best game of his brief Patriots career when he’s matched up against the Texans’ star wide receiver, Andre Johnson, on Monday night. After an off year plagued by injuries in 2011, Johnson has come roaring back this season, especially in the last three weeks. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound wideout caught 14 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown three weeks ago against the Jaguars. He then continued that dominance on Thanksgiving, catching nine passes for 188 yards against the Lions.

Since the Patriots’ cornerbacks don’t typically shadow one receiver, Talib will only have to cover Johnson for half of the game, but if he’s not careful, he could get burned. Since coming over from Tampa Bay, Talib has allowed 17 receptions for 257 yards and two touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Andrew Luck, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Tannehill completed 68 percent of passes aimed at Talib.

At 6-foot-1, Talib matches up better to Johnson’s size than New England’s other starter, Alfonzo Dennard, but Talib has also been wildly inconsistent in New England. He’s obviously still adjusting to Bill Belichick‘s system, but that doesn’t excuse the times that Talib looks to be playing at less than 100 percent effort. Talib should improve the more he plays in New England, and he certainly hasn’t been a disappointment in his three games, but he also hasn’t made as great of an impact as it seems.

Since Talib has come over, Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, Kyle Arrington and Dennard have all stepped up their play. Perhaps the biggest difference in the defense is that Talib’s starting role has allowed Arrington to play his natural role in the slot exclusively. That means he’s not getting burned down the sideline, and with less playing time, he’s able to play at 100 percent when he is matched up in the slot.

Talib and Dennard are both physical players and should be able to keep up with Johnson down the field. Johnson has lost some speed since he ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the University of Miami’s pro day in 2003, but he’s also increased his size and strength since he came into the league. Talib and Dennard cannot let Johnson get leverage and overpower them if they hope to contain the All Pro.

Fortunately for the Patriots, Johnson is by far the most imposing wide receiver on the Texans’ roster. That means either McCourty or Gregory should be able to help Talib or Dennard over the top with Johnson. Both players, and especially McCourty, have done a great job taking the top off offenses since McCourty switched from cornerback to safety.

In the six games before McCourty’s switch to safety, teams attempted 40 passes of 20 yards or more. In the six games since McCourty’s switch, opposing teams have attempted 31 passes of 20 yards or more. That split isn’t just due to a difference in opposition. Buffalo attempted 11 deep passes in its first game against New England — when McCourty was at cornerback — and just four in the second game, when the third-year player was at safety.

If the Patriots can shut Johnson down, they’ll have to rely on their tight ends, Owen Daniels and James Casey, in the passing game. The Patriots have struggled against tight ends and might need to bring reserve safeties Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson in as fifth or sixth defensive backs to help out their linebackers.

Talib may not be shadowing Johnson, but it’s still a matchup to watch for Monday night when they are across from one another. Shutting down Johnson might mean the Texans will have to focus on beating the Patriots with their talented running back, Arian Foster, which is a tough task against a stout New England run defense. The Patriots tend to struggle against faster, shiftier backs like C.J. Spiller or Reggie Bush, but Foster is actually a good matchup for Vince Wilfork and the New England linebackers.

The Texans offense will be difficult to stop regardless, but if Talib and Dennard can shut down Johnson, it will take an important element out of their strategy. The secondary has shown improvement in the weeks since Talib has arrived. If Talib can play at the same level as the rest of the starters, this New England defense could be just as imposing as the offense.

Andre Johnson photo via Facebook/HoustonTexans

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