In assessing the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib in the vacuum of what it means for the Patriots this season, there is perhaps no more useful tool than examining the game tape of what he has done thus far in 2012.
While Talib missed each of his final three games with the Buccaneers, he was active and involved for their opening four games, totaling 21 tackles, seven pass breakups (a figure that trails only Devin McCourty's nine in eight games with the Patriots), and an interception.
In consecutive weeks this season, Talib drew the assignment of facing a big, explosive NFC East wide receiver: Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants in Week 2, and Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3. Nicks finished the game with robust totals of 15 catches, 199 yards and a touchdown; Bryant, meanwhile, was more contained, finishing with just six catches for 62 yards. Those two games were the focus of our film study.
It should be noted that in neither game did Talib face off against each receiver in man-to-man coverage from start to finish. In fact, Tampa Bay mixed in quite a bit of zone coverage against New York in the second half, during which Nicks exploded for his big day. The battle between he and Talib was more competitive than Nicks' numbers suggest.
From a skill-set standpoint, some obvious factors stand out about Talib: He's a long, aggressive, loose-hipped player who has very good, if not excellent, ball skills.
Talib stands at 6-foot-1 and uses every inch of it in his play. He extends in his jam at the line of scrimmage, leverages defenders down the field, and uses an effective arm bar in the permitted zone of contact. Tampa Bay used him as a match-up cornerback, which means he would align to whatever side of the field the opponent's top wide receiver was on. Talib often was used in press coverage, allowing him to disrupt an opponent's stem.
From a build standpoint, Talib bears a striking resemblance to former Patriots cornerback Chad Scott. Scott was an effective jam-corner because of his ability to stay square to the line of scrimmage and keep his feet underneath him while doing so. Talib has an aggressive nature to his game, and he sometimes gets caught over-extending in his jam in an attempt to deliver a powerful strike. That's a coachable issue. On a touchdown throw to Nicks, Talib got caught off balance at the snap, falling backwards in his stance and allowing Nicks to beat him inside. Again, this is something that would come down to discipline in his footwork -- another coachable matter.
What makes Talib a capable "play on an island" cornerback is that he has the build, athleticism, and instincts to lock down an opponent without safety help. He's fast enough to run with linear threats and has a loose pair of hips that allow him to easily transition in his movements and back toward the football. A talking point among some in relation to the secondary issues experienced in New England this year has been cornerbacks not turning their head back to the football. Talib, because of his ability to leverage defenders with his length and hip fluidity, does well to turn back to the football at the right time. He has very good ball skills, with 18 interceptions through the first four-plus seasons of his career.
As a run defender, where the Patriots have received excellent production from their cornerbacks this season, Talib is a sufficient player. He didn't show the same tenacity during film review that Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington have throughout 2012, but he's an able tackler and not one to shy away from contact.
How the Patriots will use Talib remains to be seen. The Bucs' defensive approach varies from what New England does, so it's not as easy as assuming that Talib's production and usage will mirror for the Patriots what it was in Tampa Bay.
But it's clear that he has traits that are not scheme-specific. The moment he is activated to the Patriots' roster (the Monday after a Week 10 matchup with the Bills), he will become the team's top cover corner and playmaker in the secondary. He has unique ability to take on an opposing receiver and, when he's at his best, neutralize him. He is active around the ball, and his presence may afford the team the ability to keep Devin McCourty as secondary, where he has helped to patch up what has been a shaky position in 2012.
There are, of course, a multitude of factors in play beyond what has been laid out above. Talib has had off-the-field issues in the past, and will need to work his way back from more than a month of football missed. He'll also have to learn the Patriots' defensive schemes. But at the age of 26 and with the talent evident in studying his game tape, Talib presents a potential difference-maker for the Patriots' secondary.