Talib helps Patriots' defensive plan pay off

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots altered their defensive strategy in Sunday’s 23-3 victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, turning to an outside-the-norm game plan that highlighted the value of a clear-cut No. 1 cornerback coupled with some coaching creativity.

It started early in the week when defensive coordinator Matt Patricia pointed in Aqib Talib’s direction and told him that dangerous Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson was all his.

“That’s what Matty P said -- that was going to be my task this week,” Talib relayed after the game, saying he buried himself in tape of Jackson over the last seven days. “That’s love. That’s what you want to hear. My coach tells me to go get their No. 1 target; I take pride in that kind of stuff.”

It’s been a while since the Patriots had a cornerback capable of handling such a responsibility. With respect to Asante Samuel, who was a top playmaker, but not necessarily a man-to-man stopper, it’s probably been since Ty Law was patrolling the New England secondary (1995-2004) that coaches could employ such a plan with confidence.

So it’s not overstating things to say Talib has been a big-time difference maker for the Patriots since he was acquired from the Buccaneers last November.

“It’s great. Being able to put him on [Jackson] and know he’s going to be able to handle him pretty well is definitely a big thing and a big addition for our defense,” veteran safety Steve Gregory said.

That was the first part of the Patriots’ plan on Sunday, with Jackson totaling three catches for 34 yards before leaving in the second half with injured ribs. The second part, and this is where the creativity came into play, was how the defense matched up against the Buccaneers’ three-receiver package.

Most weeks, the Patriots will be in their nickel defense (five defensive backs) against the three-receiver package, which lightens the box against the run but adds help in the passing game. On Sunday, the Patriots switched things up by subbing out Gregory at safety for a third cornerback (Alfonzo Dennard), while keeping their front seven intact.

That gave them a little more of a coverage element in the secondary without adding an extra defensive back, but kept them sturdy in the box against slippery Doug Martin (20 carries, 88 yards) and the Buccaneers’ running game.

“Those are two premier players in this league and you need to understand where they are on the field and be able to contain them if you want to beat a team like that,” Gregory explained. “It starts with stopping the run. We were able to execute our game plan pretty well today and limit those guys with what they could do.”

The Patriots’ defensive work included three stops on fourth down (two of which turned into touchdowns and one into a field goal), a Talib interception that set up an end-of-the-first-half 53-yard field goal, and two stops inside the 20-yard line. So while the Buccaneers chewed up yards at times, the Patriots won the critical situations. Some ineptitude by the Buccaneers also helped the cause.

The performance capped a strong three-game stretch for the Patriots’ defense, which has had to carry more of the slack than usual as the offense has struggled to shift into the high gear that New England fans have grown accustomed to seeing. At the same time, even players themselves seemed to realize that it’s one thing to do it against the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Buccaneers, and another to do so against what is ahead.

Next up: The Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night.

“If we hold Atlanta to three points, we will have played a hell of a game,” admitted veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. “We’re just going to try to keep those boys out of the end zone -- Julio Jones, Roddy White, they’re a lot to handle.

“If you can’t get up to play against Atlanta -- hey, they’re going to throw the ball, you’re going to get a chance to hit the quarterback, as a D-lineman your eyes have to light up. I’m looking forward to it.”

Maybe then Kelly will be more willing to declare this Patriots defense as one developing an attitude similar to the units that were big parts of three Super Bowl championships in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

For now, it’s being viewed as a promising start, with Sunday showing the combination of a clear-cut No. 1 cornerback and some coaching creativity can be a winning formula when the team’s own offense is still searching for its identity.