FOXBORO, Mass. — Aqib Talib‘s 2012 season has had a Jekyll and Hyde feel to it. He started the season in Tampa Bay with a new coach and a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. There was a possibility that he would be cut midway through the season. Then, he got traded to the Patriots, fixed a struggling secondary and found himself in the first playoff game of his career. matching up against one of the best wide receivers the NFL has ever seen. And he’s having a blast.
Because of the Hyde portion of Talib’s season, there are many reasons for Bill Belichick not to trust Talib, but it’s obvious that the Patriots’ head coach does. Talib is new to the Patriots’ system, and he’s certainly had his troubles off the field before. But the Patriots’ cornerback is the only player Belichick has had faith in to trail a team’s No. 1 receiver in recent memory. In the last two games against Andre Johnson and the Texans, Talib has followed the All-Pro wide receiver across the field.
Talib didn’t play perfectly in his first postseason game, but he did hold Johnson to eight receptions for 95 yards without a touchdown. Talib trusts in his head coach as well. He doesn’t know why he gets special treatment against Johnson, but when he does, he cherishes it.
“It showed my coach has got a little confidence in me,” Talib said. “I can’t complain about that.”
Talib made it clear he was having fun out there, and it was obvious watching him. The cornerback finished the game with 10 tackles, and he was flying all over the field, jawing with players back and forth. The cornerback can talk, but he said it’s all fun and games out on the field for the playoffs.
“I woke up ready to go. I definitely had a lot of fun out there, my first playoff game,” Talib said. “The game definitely sped up, atmosphere definitely changed. I definitely seen the difference. I had a lot of fun out there.”
Fun was the word of the day for Talib as he got to trail Johnson. The fifth-year cornerback was brought in for one reason by the Patriots, almost like a mercenary. His job is to shut down his side of the field, letting Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Alfonzo Dennard take care of everything else. With that responsibility usually comes a great challenge, but Talib is ready for it.
“If you’re a cornerback and you don’t want to go after their best receiver, you’re in the wrong business,” Talib said.
Talib wasn’t the only player on the Gillette Stadium turf happy to try to shut down Johnson. Gregory said he is glad to have Talib join the Patriots and make an impact against No. 1 receivers.
“When you can get someone who can line up with a No. 1 receiver, and you know he’s going to play well and compete against that guy, it’s great to have a guy like that on your team,” Gregory said.
Belichick had some high praise for Johnson, which makes it even more impressive that he trusts Talib to go toe-to-toe with the 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver.
“Johnson is a great receiver. He’s arguably one or two all time. He’s tremendous,” Belichick said. “He’s big, fast, has great hands, good route runner. Aqib competed with him every down, just like he did the first half of the first game. That’s two good football players, and that’s a battle.”
Talib won’t take credit for saving the Patriots’ secondary midway through the season, but he has certainly played a major role. This isn’t the same defense that struggled early in the season with McCourty and Kyle Arrington starting at cornerback and Gregory and Patrick Chung at safety. Talib didn’t do it alone, but he, combined with McCourty’s move to safety and Dennard’s emergence as a rookie, has the secondary clicking. And not having to worry about a team’s No. 1 receiver is surely a load off the rest of the secondary’s collective backs.
Talib has learned the Patriot Way, though, and he’s not going to boast about anything.
“Matty P [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia], coach Belichick, making adjustments,” Talib explained for the sudden success of the defense. “I just happened to come in on adjustments.”
Talib said the defensive backs are communicating well on the field and playing well on the practice field. Making it to the Super Bowl may depend on the secondary continuing that success against the Ravens. Talib and crew face the unfortunate task of trying to stop Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith on Sunday. Talib may not trail either player, but at least Belichick and the Patriots have faith that his side of the field will be solid.