FOXBOROUGH — All of the statistics are there, the numbers for the Patriots secondary pre-Aqib Talib and post-Aqib Talib.
The numbers show improvement for a unit that had been the Achilles’ heel of the team for going on two seasons before his arrival.
It isn’t all him, of course. Every member of the Patriots, from Tom Brady on down, will tell you football is a team game, and nearly every day Bill Belichick implores each player: “Do your job.”
Talib has done his job pretty well. The cornerback has been matched up against the opponent’s best receiver and followed him all over the field. Last week against the Texans, Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson had eight catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns; he had minimal impact on the game.
Johnson had the same stat line in the Patriots’ December meeting with Houston, again with minimal impact (though he wasn’t the only Texans player that could be said about that night).
The 26-year old Talib came to New England via trade with Tampa Bay on Nov. 1. He could not play his first game as a member of the Patriots because of a league suspension, but the next week, against the Colts, he announced his arrival with a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown.
That got fans to like him immediately, and his new teammates were quick to embrace Talib as well.
“He loves the game,” said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. “I always try to find guys that have the passion, have the love for the game, because I can play with anybody like that. When he got here, from day one, we saw his passion and love for the game and it didn’t do anything but help us.”
Though Talib has had his share of incidents in his career — incidents that were well-documented when he joined the Patriots — his competitiveness and desire to learn and improve are also well-known.
“He’s a good football player, good teammate, he’s very well-respected because of his professionalism,” Belichick said. “He studies hard and prepares well. He’s tough. He competes well, both in practice and on Sundays. Smart kid.
“I like him; the team likes him. He’s a good guy to be around, and he works hard and competes well. I think those are his most impressive qualities.”
Talib will be counted on again Sunday in the AFC Championship game. On Wednesday, he wasn’t letting on as to whom he’ll be asked to cover, but it could be second-year speedster Torrey Smith.
Smith had but three catches last week against the Broncos, but two of them were for touchdowns — one for 59 yards and the other for 32 yards. For the season, he averaged more than 17 yards per reception.
“Whatever the assignment is, the assignment is; we’re still working on the game plan and trying to figure that out,” said Talib, adding that he likes getting the tough covers. “Definitely, definitely. Whatever assignment Coach gives me, man, I’m going to take it and run with it.”
“He brings a lot of positives defensively,” said Wilfork. “Being able to isolate him in some situations. Being able to do different things defensively because we have a guy like that. He is a special player. Ever since we got him, he has been making plays for us.
“He made this defense better and we are happy to have him. Anytime you can basically say, ‘Hey, you got this guy and we are going to cover everybody else,’ that is a good sign.”
The arrival of Talib allowed the Patriots to kick Kyle Arrington inside to cover the slot receiver, and Devin McCourty to remain at safety. Since those moves were made, New England has given up fewer pass plays of 20 or more yards.
In their September matchup against the Ravens, the Patriots allowed eight such passes, all of which were part of Raven scoring drives.
Though the revamped secondary has allowed fewer big plays, there was a great deal of talk on Wednesday from Belichick, Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo about the big plays Baltimore can make with Joe Flacco’s big arm and Smith and Jacoby Jones’s ability to get downfield.
It almost seems as though it’s big play or bust for the Ravens offense. In their two postseason games, Flacco has completed 30 of 57 attempts (52.6 percent) for 613 yards, which is more than 20 yards per completion.
Talib said you need look no further than the win in Denver last week to see how dangerous they can be with the deep ball.
“That game, it summed it up, man,” he said. “They started the game taking shots and ended the game taking shots.
“That’s what you’ve got to try to do against guys like this — play the deep ball.”