Aqib Talib 'should have cribbed that' INT; still, stats show his influence

The Rams are allowing nearly 80 fewer passing yards per game when Aqib Talib is on the field. They'll need him healthy as the playoffs approach. AP Photo/Kyusung Gong

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Aqib Talib created his opportunity on Sunday.

The Los Angeles Rams cornerback sat on a route by Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz at the goal line to intercept his first pass of the season. Talib nearly broke for a touchdown return but was tackled after 30 yards.

Days later, as the Rams prepared to face the Arizona Cardinals, Talib was still getting heckled inside the locker room for not returning the interception all the way.

"He should have cribbed that," Rams cornerback Marcus Peters said. "He just ain't got no vision. He should have went to the house though."

Talib offered a loud rebuttal: "C'mon now. Get your numbers up. Catch me if you can."

Talib has 35 career interceptions in 11 seasons and ranks fourth on the NFL's all-time list of interceptions returned for touchdowns with 10, behind Rod Woodson (12), Darren Sharper (11) and Charles Woodson (11).

Among his career goals: Take over the top spot on that list.

"I'll get there," Talib said, noting that each player ahead of him had a career that spanned at least 14 seasons.

For eight weeks this season, even as the Rams sprinted to an 11-3 record, Talib was sorely missed.

Wade Phillips' defense was forced to play without the lockdown corner after he suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 against the Los Angeles Chargers that required surgery and sent him onto the injured reserve list.

He was activated in Week 13, and his presence has reinvigorated a group that lost some of its direction without the six-time Pro Bowl player, whom the Rams acquired in an offseason trade with the Denver Broncos.

"You can see our team has gotten better since he's been back," said Phillips, whose defense Talib starred in when the Broncos won Super Bowl 50.

In Talib's absence, the Rams' defense allowed an average of 272.6 passing yards per game. Since his return, that number has dropped to 192.7. Passing yards per attempt has fallen off too, moving from 8.66 yards per attempt to 6.58 yards, while the rate of interceptions per attempt has climbed from 2.2 percent to 5.3 percent.

"There's just more urgency, more communication," said Los Angeles safety John Johnson, who leads the team with four interceptions. "There's more studying, more focus, more attention to detail."

Cornerback Troy Hill, who started seven games in Talib's absence, said the veteran's presence and leadership have especially been felt in the meeting room.

"Any indecision, he's going to force you to put it out there, like this is what we're going to do," Hill said.

Talib's return also has come with a sharp improvement on third down. When he was sidelined, teams converted 41.6 percent of their third-down attempts. With Talib on the field, opponents' third-down conversions have dropped to 31.7 percent.

"We're all just a lot more comfortable with each other and just having him back with us, like I said him playing with Wade, and then just have his leadership out there helps us pick up everything," said Peters, who has three interceptions this season.

Talib rehabbed vigorously to return from IR after a minimum of eight weeks, and the Rams have eased him into action.

Talib played only 26 snaps in a victory over the Detroit Lions in Week 13, when the Rams clinched the NFC West for a second consecutive season. He participated in 97 percent of the snaps (69-of-71) the following week in a loss to the Chicago Bears. And he played 100 percent (64) of the snaps in the loss to the Eagles.

"I'm definitely not 100 percent," said Talib, adding that the injury has affected his ability to accelerate. "But it get better every week."

In six games, Talib has three pass deflections, a forced fumble and an interception. The interception came early in the fourth quarter on Sunday with the Eagles on the Rams' 18-yard line.

The pick saved a potential touchdown and kept the Rams within striking distance, as they trailed 30-13.

Rams coach Sean McVay called it a "big-time play" and said it could have shifted the dynamic of the game.

"He understands where his play ops are, where he can be greedy based on some of the calls or where we are on the field," McVay said of Talib. "That's what's made him such an instinctual, great player, is the overall intelligence, the IQ ... matches up with the talent, the ball skills to be able to finish and make those plays."

For the first time in McVay's two seasons as coach, the Rams have lost back-to-back regular-season games. They must rebound Sunday, and hope for a Bears loss, to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The late-season losses represent a similar situation to what Talib experienced with Denver during the 2015 campaign, when the Broncos finished 12-4 in the regular season and defeated the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, despite dropping two games in December.

Talib said he remembered that December slump but noted, "It's football"; and like with the Broncos, there's no need for the Rams to panic as they prepare for their final two games of the regular season and the playoffs.

"You win some; you lose some. Everybody just got to go to work," Talib said. "We know the opportunity that we've got in front of us. So we just got to prepare, prepare, and get the mistakes out of our system and get ready to go on a run."