Aqib Talib a singular talent

When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is asked which cornerbacks he's coached over the past 39 NFL seasons have the most similarities to Aqib Talib, the list is a short one.

Maybe former New England Patriot Ty Law, but even then it's not a perfect fit.

"They're both good perimeter corners, but I see them as having different skill sets," he said. "Maybe Ty would be similar in that he was a good corner and you could put him on a lot of players and not maybe feel like you need to give him a lot of help."

Former New York Jets cornerback Aaron Glenn also was mentioned, but likewise, it's not a perfect match.

"Again, he's about as different a player physically as you could get from Aqib," Belichick said, "but he also was a guy that could go out and cover a lot of receivers without a lot of help."

In the tale of the tape, Talib (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), Law (5-11, 200) and Glenn (5-9, 183) fall into different categories. But what links them, as Belichick noted, is their ability to serve as a single, difference-making chess piece in a defensive plan by matching up one-on-one against an opposing receiver (and in Talib's case, also tight ends).

Players like that are rare, and even former playmaking Patriot Asante Samuel -- more of a zone corner with terrific instincts -- doesn't qualify.

That's why, as Patriots players return to work Tuesday after a six-day break over their bye week, Talib's status is one of the most important storylines to monitor. He's missed the past 3½ games with a left hip injury, and for a defense that started the season strong but has staggered in recent weeks, Talib is one of the main factors to point to when considering if the unit can recapture its early-season form.

Not to mention that the next three games feature big-time challenges in receivers Steve Smith (Carolina), Demaryius Thomas/Wes Welker (Denver) and Andre Johnson (Houston). Those are matchups that a healthy Talib would almost certainly be tapped for, especially considering what we've already seen this season.

"He's just done a tremendous job for us within our system, doing the tasks that we're asking him to do," defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.

What the Patriots have asked Talib to do, in terms of matching up against opponents' top receivers and tight ends, is different than most anything we've seen in recent years from a defense that usually has had its corners playing sides. One has to go back to Law, who played with New England from 1995-2004, for a defensive back who shadowed a specific player all across the field.

On Sept. 22, Talib drew the assignment against Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson (3 catches, 34 yards) and was competitive in a fun-to-watch battle.

The next week, in Atlanta, was less of a specific matchup for Talib, who covered both Julio Jones and Roddy White at times, but the idea was the same. The Patriots had Talib on an island at various points, and he was up for the task, with a fourth-quarter interception of a long pass intended for Jones and the game-sealing pass breakup in the end zone on a pass intended for White.

Talib was back to a singular matchup Oct. 6 in Cincinnati, checking A.J. Green (5 catches, 61 yards). The Bengals' most dangerous offensive weapon wasn't a huge factor.

And the high point came Oct. 13 against the Saints, when Talib blanked tight end Jimmy Graham through two-plus quarters before both left with injuries.

Talib hasn't played since, although he's been at practice the past two-plus weeks on a limited basis. Signs are that he's progressing toward a return to game action, and perhaps an extra week of rest over the bye will get him over the hump.

When that happens, the trickle-down effects on a defense that has sprung some leaks in recent weeks are obvious.

"Talib is a guy that we have a lot of confidence in and probably would treat his matchups a little bit differently than we've treated some other ones in the past," Belichick said.