FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Aqib Talib landed with the New England Patriots in a trade deadline deal from Tampa Bay, many wondered if the veteran cornerback would fit in New England.
On the field, the question was whether the fifth-year veteran and former first-round pick could stabilize a secondary that was among the worst in the NFL over the first half of the season, giving up big plays at an alarming rate.
Off the field, the question was whether Talib — who was suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, had past gun charges and multiple physical altercations with teammates — would fit under the umbrella of the “Patriots Way.”
Barely more than two months later, those questions no longer exist. On and off the field, the oft-troubled Talib couldn’t have fit in any better in New England.
Talib stepped right into the starting lineup in Week 11 against the Indianapolis Colts. He almost immediately made a big play, showing his elite physical skills by returning an Andrew Luck overthrow 59 yards for a touchdown.
Since then — although he missed most of the past two games of the season with a hip injury — Talib has remained a fixture at cornerback. His presence along with the elevation of rookie Alfonzo Dennard on the other size of the field allowed former Pro Bowler Devin McCourty to bounce back to safety. Along with Steve Gregory at the other safety spot, that lineup in the defensive backfield brought a settled, more competitive pass defense to the field.
While Talib’s play was up and down at times, and he admitted to having to knock off some rust and improve his technique coming off the suspension, his presence brought new options to the back end. New England used him to match up with Texans All-Pro Andre Johnson in the regular season, and then again in the Patriots’ big win over Houston in the rematch in the divisional playoff.
Asked to keep Johnson in check and keep everything in front of him in that matchup with one of the game’s elite receivers, Talib was more than up to the challenge. And that’s just one of the many reasons everyone in New England has been so impressed with their short-time teammate.
“Very positive,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick responded when asked to assess Talib’s impact since joining the team. “He’s a good football player, good teammate, he’s very well respected because of his professionalism. He studies hard and prepares well. He’s tough. He competes well, both in practice and on Sundays. Smart kid. I like him; the team likes him. He’s a good guy to be around, and he works hard and competes well. I think those are his most impressive qualities.”
McCourty, a team captain and the unquestioned leader of the secondary, says Talib fit in New England immediately.
“As soon as he got here, he was kind of just like one of the guys,” McCourty recalls.
In true Patriots fashion and having clearly been given a crash course in the Patriot Way, Talib downplays any talk that he was the reason the secondary showed some improvement over the second half of the season.
“It’s definitely not me,” Talib said. “It’s Week 16, 17, 18… it’s the coaches. Matty P. (Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia), Coach Belichick making adjustments. I just happened to come in on an adjustment.”
One aspect Talib has not downplayed was his excitement in terms of landing in New England, and in the postseason. His first career playoff game came in the win over Houston, after four-plus early offseasons in his career in Tampa Bay.
“It’s wonderful,” Talib said. “As a player if you could pick where you wanted to play at, you want play for a team like the Patriots. God is the best of planners. He put me out here in Boston with Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick, man, it’s just a blessing.”
A blessing that went both ways, helping to propel the Patriots to AFC title game as he brought stability and man-coverage ability to a unit that began the season giving up big plays down the field at an almost unfathomable rate.
“He has made this team better, obviously,” Jerod Mayo said. “His physical abilities, he is a tall guy with long arms and he can do a lot of different things.”
Even though Vince Wilfork plays about as far as you can from the back end, the All-Pro defensive tackle is also aware of what having a guy with Talib’s matchup coverage skills has meant to the unit as a whole.
“He brings a lot of positive defensively, being able to isolate him in some situations. Being able to do different things defensively because we have a guy like that. He is a special player,” Wilfork said. “Ever since we got him he has been making plays for us. He made this defense better and we are happy to have him. He definitely made a big difference in what we do defensively. Anytime you can basically say, ‘Hey you got this guy and we are going to cover everybody else.’ That is a good sign.
“He loves the game. That is one thing. I always try to find guys that have the passion. Have the love for the game because I can play with anybody like that. When he got here, from day one, we saw his passion and love for the game and it didn’t do anything but help us.”