Air Supremacy: How Patriots Cornerback Aqib Talib Grounded the Falcons in Week 4

Aqib Talib closed off the airways against the Falcons in Week 4. (Photo: NFL Game Rewind)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

Over 11 months ago, the New England Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for a seventh-round pick and cornerback Aqib Talib. The deadline swap handed New England experience outside, and it also handed the 2008 first-rounder a change in scenery.

Talib’s first season in Foxborough, Mass., came along with six games, 19 tackles, an interception returned for a touchdown and two pass deflections. Yet after the 2012 campaign closed and unrestricted free agency opened, the 6’1”, 205-pounder was no guarantee to re-sign.

He did, inking one-year, $4.8 million “prove it” deal. And through the first quarter of the 2013 regular season, the 27-year-old has proved it. But on the road versus the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, Talib established more than his worth.

He established air supremacy.

Facing Atlanta’s five-time Pro Bowl wide receivers, as well as the deafening noise of the Georgia Dome, Talib logged 78 penalty-inclusive snaps in the Patriots defensive backfield. He squared off with 6’0”, 183-pound slot receiver Harry Douglas for one snap, the 6’0”, 211-pound White for 37 snaps, and with the 6’3”, 220-pound Jones for 40 more.

By the final whistle, the sixth-year pro had been targeted nine times.

He had not allowed a catch.

First Quarter, 10:20 – One Catch, One Yard*

Now, it could be argued that Talib did allow one reception on Sunday night. However, it was not a reception at the hands of his designed assignment.

It transpired on the 10th play of the Falcons’ opening drive. Nearing the end zone, Atlanta came out in “11” personnel with one running back and one tight end. Talib was aligned opposite White inside, while Dennard stood opposite Jones at the numbers.

The two wideouts designed a natural pick. And with White set to hit the flat, Jones was set to screen a pivot inside.

For the two inside cornerbacks, it created a switch comparable to defending the pick-and-roll in basketball. And for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, it created a window of opportunity within that switch.

As White surpassed Jones, it was too late to make an adjustment. Dennard found himself in the midst of a block from Talib’s man. Talib found himself following his receiver into that block on Dennard.

In turn, Jones’ quick cut inside netted a catch for one yard.

This play is deserving of an asterisk. Although at its very essentials, Talib did not let his priority acquire the football.

First Quarter, 4:04 – Pass Breakup

With just over four minutes left in the first frame, the Falcons utilized “20” personnel with a loaded backfield flanking Ryan in shotgun. Talib had the benefit of covering Jones with help of rookie safety Duron Harmon helping over top.

Nonetheless, No. 11 and his 4.39 40-yard dash speed was about to be on display during his deep comeback route.

Off the snap, Jones speed released inside Talib’s right shoulder. That said, Talib was ready slide and jam the Alabama product at that juncture. The brush off slowed the progression of Jones’ route and aided Talib in shadowing him. The corner patiently sat on the pass-catcher’s next cut.

Jones planted and retreated to the ball.

Talib did the same. Holding his already-traced ground, Talib had the rebounding Jones eclipsed. He watched the arrow fire in and lunged upward with his right arm between Jones’.

He deflected the pass out of harm’s way.

One target and one pass breakup through one quarter of play.

Second Quarter, 9:33 – Pass Breakup

Six minutes into the second quarter, the Falcons displayed “21” with two tight ends off the line and the two deep threats split out. Talib took Jones, who was prepped to run a fade route down the left sideline.

As Ryan handled the snap from center, Jones stuttered out of his stance and veered outside. Conversely, Talib bounced back, kept his feet active and his center of gravity low.

He made contact within the five-yard bubble to dictate the receiver’s positioning. From there, it was off to the races. Jones manned the outside, Talib manned the inside, and both matched each other stride for stride.

The pass sailed in, destined for the seven-yard marker.

When the two combatants crossed the 20, they looked back to the ball. Yet as the pass reached Jones’ airborne body, Talib twisted his head in the direction of the stands and flung his shoulders up into Jones’ torso.

The ball rattled out of the route-runner’s fingertips and recoiled off the turf.

Two targets. Two pass breakups.

Second Quarter, 6:22 – Misthrow

The Falcons offense worked its way into the red zone before seeing its plans reach a standstill. On a 4th-and-2 with 6:22 left in the first half, Atlanta head coach Mike Smith opted to go for it.

The attack left the huddle in “11” and was geared up for a QB rollout pass to White on a quick out. And with the Patriots defense focused on double-teaming red-zone tight end Tony Gonzalez at the line of scrimmage, the outskirts were left relatively uncharted.

Talib stood off, tracking White from afar.

Ryan handled the snap and swung out towards the left hash marks. He saw White in his sights, and White saw him. Nevertheless, eager to get the throw out before Talib zeroed in, Ryan forgot to set his feet, even his shoulders and step into the pass.

The ball sailed over White’s head and out of bounds. A fully launched Talib did not see his soft coverage yield to a first down or touchdown.

He was thrown at three times in the first half of action. The airmail to White was the only one he didn’t have a hand in.

Third Quarter, 11:55 – Pass Breakup

With the score knotted up at 10 apiece in the early part of the third, Ryan and Co. spread the receivers out and sought to do the same to the defense. The Patriots, on the other hand, shipped all six members of the front up to the line, while safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory sat in a two-man under look.

Talib was ready to handle Jones – who was plotting a quick slant – alone.

As the sequence got underway, Jones hopped up and in front of Talib. Ryan read it quickly and tossed the ball in. Despite gaining the interior track, Jones’ space would soon be shared with No. 31.

Initially, Talib played Jones’ inside shoulder.

He altered course, circling around the back of Jones and finding the most direct route to the football. Talib left his feet and backhanded the pass attempt.

The rapid change of direction award Talib his third disrupted pass of the evening.

Fourth Quarter, 13:24 – Defensive Pass Interference

With the score 20-10 as the fourth quarter began to heighten, the aggressiveness of the Falcons passing game followed suit. Talib lined up with White on the numbers of the right sideline.

The receiver was going to take the DB on a corner route, deep into Patriots territory.

As Ryan snagged the football and dropped back, Talib did the same as White seized the inside lane before cutting vertically. In turn, the former Kansas Jayhawk was left a slight step behind. He caught up, but locked arms with White on two separate occasions, which caught the attention of the officials.

Talib bent his left arm. White outstretched his right arm.

The launched pass fell into play, forcing White to cork backwards in attempted to snare it. Talib played the outside cleanly. But by the time the ball hit the ground, so did penalty flags.

It was Talib’s first penalty of the year. It carried the Falcons 38 yards ahead of the previous spot.

Fourth Quarter, 9:43 – Interception, -2 Yards

New England’s defense held the Falcons to a field goal in the aftermath of Talib’s pass interference. Then, New England’s offense marched into the end zone on its next drive.

Consequently, the Falcons got the ball back down 27-13, vying for points. On the one play of the series, Jones was orchestrated to run a fade down the right sideline. Talib was orchestrated to guard him.

The duel got off the line. Jones short-stepped outside Talib and exhibited his long speed, getting even with his defender.

The old “if he’s even, he’s leaving” concept was applied by Ryan, as he decided to unleash the a pass Jones’ way.

The difference between that concept and the reality of this situation, though, was that Jones wasn’t leaving. The dynamic weapon could not separate from Talib’s back pocket.

And the ball was arcing back towards center field.

Talib boxed out and snagged the ball over the shoulder. Jones wrapped his arms around him, but the left cornerback held on to notch his fourth interception of the year.

Fourth Quarter, 5:53 – Dropped Pass

Atlanta’s offense went to the air with just under six minutes remaining in the tilt. With trips left, Talib played inside on White, who was about to run a deep out pattern.

White juked off the snap and ran towards the 50 before carving outward. The safety patrolling overhead kept White honest, and Talib’s proper angle and balance kept him nearby through the turn.

Ryan’s pass had a more muscle than touch on it, but it was a catchable ball.

It was a catchable ball that bounced off White’s hands to fall incomplete.

Fourth Quarter, 5:12 – Offensive Pass Interference

Three plays later, Talib was paired up with White once again. This time, the veteran receiver was scheming a pivot route.

Breaking off the line, White’s heavily taped ankles showed their side-effects. Instead of flexing his lower body, No. 84 pushed off Talib’s chest plate and used that to gain real estate outside.

Ryan tossed it into the soft spot in coverage, and White was there to reel it in. That being aid, the gain was only temporary, because the officials saw shove.

The Falcons were backed up 10 yards as a result. In the stat sheet, the play never happened.

Fourth Quarter, 0:41 – Pass Breakup

Atlanta’s resurgence had the differential down to seven points with just 41 seconds left to play. And, making the stakes even higher, it was 4th-and-7 from the New England 10-yard line.

Talib centered himself inside the hashes and prepped himself for White.

The receiver was planning a slant route into the right corner of the end zone, a vacant location due to New England’s linebacker roadblock on Gonzalez out right.

Ryan dropped back into the pocket and immediately gazed in the direction of White, who was crossing through with the friction of Talib on his far side.

Ryan let it go.

Talib, who correctly covered the backside to avoid a turnaround jump ball, threw his left arm around White and let the ball ricochet.

The game was effectively over.

Talib finished with four pass deflections, an interception, a pass interference penalty, a drawn pass interference penalty and nine official targets.

He played as a press-man defender. He played as a shadow. He played as an air traffic controller against top-tier receivers. And, ultimately, he played one of the most complete coverage games a Patriots cornerback has played in the last decade.

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