Some of that may be due to Talib’s talents, but the biggest improvement has come from Kyle Arrington in the slot. Before Talib came around, Arrington was expected to start at right cornerback in New England’s base defense and kick inside to man the slot in sub packages — nickel and dime situations. Now that Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are starting on the outside, Arrington may have a decreased role, but he’s been a much more effective player.
Arrington’s strength has long come from that inside role. Before Dennard emerged and the team traded for Talib, though, Arrington was forced into a role as an every-down starter. The fifth-year player is best in more confined space on the field, and especially when the ball is in front of him, rather than when he has to run deep with a wide receiver. When Arrington is forced into that role of covering the sideline, the pass interference calls start to come, and Arrington gets beat down the field.
Arrington has long struggled to turn his head around and look for the ball. He’s best when he can stay close and make a play. We saw that time and time again last season, when Arrington came away with a league-leading seven interceptions. Granted, some of those were balls that bounced the right way, but the Patriots’ cornerback was constantly hovering around the ball.
Arrington struggled at the beginning of the season. That was for a variety of reasons. First, he was being forced to play outside. But he was asked to do that last season as well. Perhaps the biggest reason for Arrington’s struggles was the lack of help he was getting over the top from his safeties. That’s all changed since Devin McCourty emerged as the best safety this team has seen since Rodney Harrison.
Arrington really flashed Monday night against the Texans. The Patriots only allowed 232 yards to Houston’s quarterback, Matt Schaub, while Andre Johnson and Arian Foster did most of that damage with 134 yards combined. Arrington was targeted six times in the game and allowed one 16-yard reception to Johnson outside after Talib had been forced to leave the game with a hip injury. Arrington was also flagged for pass interference early in the third quarter — again, when he was covering Johnson outside.
Other than those two plays, Arrington played flawlessly. He deflected three balls and was covering Lester Jean when the Texans’ wide receiver was flagged for offensive pass interference. Arrington is not only a solid player in the slot because of his strengths in coverage but also because that role puts him closer to the backfield to make plays in the run game. Arrington may be the best tackler in the New England secondary.
Since Talib has taken Arrington’s role as an every-down starter, the slot corner has been targeted 19 times in four games. He’s allowed five receptions for 59 yards without a touchdown. He’s also been flagged three times, according to Pro Football Focus. Arrington certainly started the season rough, but in his last four games, he’s been tremendous, and he’s rounding into shape when the games matter most.
Arrington — like many of his defensive teammates — also has a tendency to make plays when his team needs them most. The Texans were facing a fourth-and-5 situation already down 21-0 when Schaub dropped back to pass to Kevin Walter. Walter had a two-yard cushion on Arrington, but the Patriots’ corner broke on the play and knocked the ball out of Walter’s hands, forcing a turnover on downs.
There was a scare late in the game when it looked like Arrington may have hurt his leg. His teammate, defensive end Justin Francis, rolled into him, but Arrington said after the game that while his body is sore, mentally he’s feeling the best he’s felt in a while.
It may seem improbable, but the Patriots’ secondary is rounding into place as the season is really getting started. McCourty is proving to be an absolute stud at safety, Steve Gregory is making plays (and making less mistakes in coverage as he gets accustomed to the defense), Talib is improving every game, Dennard is shedding his rookie mistakes and, most importantly, Arrington has fit himself into a role that shines a spotlight on his strengths and diminishes his flaws. Who would have ever thought at the beginning of the season that the New England secondary could wind up as a strong point for this team, rather than a glaring weakness?
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