FOXBORO, Mass. — Veteran cornerback Aqib Talib revealed last week the New England Patriots attempted to sign him this offseason to cover tight ends.
With Talib declining, those duties fell to Joejuan Williams in the Patriots’ season opener.
Williams, New England’s second-round pick in last year’s NFL draft, lined up opposite tight end Mike Gesicki on each of his 27 defensive snaps in the Patriots’ 21-11 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
The vast majority of those snaps called for Williams to match up with Gesicki in man coverage, often in key situations. He did so on 11 of Miami’s 13 third downs, one fourth down and one two-point conversion.
This was a new role for the second-year pro, who was drafted as a cornerback and played sparingly as a rookie. But he held up well. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was just 1-for-3 for 9 yards with an interception and a pass breakup when targeting Gesicki with Williams in coverage.
Williams registered the pass breakup, blanketing Gesicki down the left sideline on third-and-5. His tight coverage in the end zone in the final minutes also helped produce J.C. Jackson’s game-sealing pick.
“He had a couple really good plays — big plays,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday morning in a video conference. “A pass breakup on third down, had good coverage there on the interception at the end of the game. … He took Gesicki away, and (Fitzpatrick) couldn’t get the ball in there, and J.C. intercepted it.
“Gesicki, he’s a big receiver. I mean, he’s not really a conventional tight end. But he’s a tough matchup in the passing game, and I felt like Joejuan matched up against him and did a good job.”
Williams still is listed as a cornerback, but the Patriots changed his position this offseason, utilizing his physicality and 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame to help fill the void at strong safety created by Patrick Chung’s opt-out.
The 22-year-old Vanderbilt product earlier this month said he considers himself a defensive back, not just a corner or a safety.
“I thought he played really well (Sunday),” safety Devin McCourty said after Sunday’s game. “We tasked him with a huge challenge of being out there on Gesicki a lot of key passing situations, and I think he showed up. Great play on one third down, and to end the game, being locked in on him there.
“He’s a big, physical guy who loves to compete, so we’ve just got to help him in everything that he does out there with playing that new kind of hybrid role. It’s up to the veterans to make sure, as new things come at us, that we can help him out a little bit. But I think he’s done a great job so far.”
Williams wasn’t a one-for-one Chung replacement. Veteran newcomer Adrian Phillips got the start at strong safety and saw significant playing time as a hybrid linebacker — a role Chung frequently filled in previous years.
The Patriots utilized an unusually deep rotation against Miami, with Williams, Phillips, Devin McCourty, Terrence Brooks, rookie Kyle Dugger and cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones all logging snaps at one or more safety spots.
It will be interesting to see how Williams’ role evolves as the season progresses. Gesicki is a solid pass-catching tight end (51 catches, 570 yards, five touchdowns last season) but he’s far from the best New England’s defense will face this season.
The Patriots’ schedule features matchups with Travis Kelce (1,229 receiving yards in 2019, leading all tight ends), Darren Waller (1,145, second), George Kittle (1,053, third) and Mark Andrews (852, fifth) — a slate that scared Talib into retirement.
They’ll also see the likes of Greg Olsen, Hunter Henry, Tyler Higbee and Noah Fant — all of whom surpassed 500 receiving yards last season –in the coming weeks.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images