Talib Injury Exposes Patriots Lack of Secondary Depth
The Patriots are fortunate that Talib's hip flexor injury is not of the season ending variety, as the Patriots pass defense struggled mightily in his absence Sunday. The Pats allowed a season high 52% conversion rate on third down, with many of those coming through the air.
The performance is just the latest instance of what has become a troubling trend for this defense. When Talib does not play, the team's pass defense reverts back to it's awful 2011 form. Simply put, if Talib doesn't play the Patriots will struggle against the pass.
It's remarkable how much of an impact Talib has made since coming to New England. Before his arrival, the starting cornerback duo of Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington were hemorrhaging big plays at a alarming rate. Since Talib's arrival, the pass defense has jumped from terrible to decent to exceptional.
Talib's presence as a legitimate top corner allowed McCourty to move to safety, where his combination of range and smarts have made him one of the game's best. McCourty's switch to safety also helped the team dramatically cutback on the costly miscommunications that had become far too prevalent in recent seasons. His arrival also coincided with the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard, who played well enough to push Arrington back inside to the slot, where he clearly belongs. Arrington has had success as a nickel corner, but is picked on with regularity whenever he has to cover other team's top receivers on the outside.
When everyone is present and playing their role (Talib as the top corner, Dennard as a good #2 with some ball skills and Arrington as the nickel back), the scheme works like a charm. However, since Talib's arrival, things have immediately fallen apart whenever the top corner misses time.
Take last year. Talib's hip flexor acted up enough for the cornerback to miss a meaningless late season tilt with the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. With Talib out, the secondary promptly allowed Chad Henne to look like the second coming of Johnny Unitas, as the former Dolphins quarterback lead Jacksonville to a surprising 13-3 lead early. Of course, the Jaguars and Henne eventually reverted back to being, well, the Jaguars and Henne, allowing the Patriots to escape with a tougher than expected win.
They would be less fortunate a month later in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots actually lead 13-7 at halftime, but the loss of Talib to a hamstring injury would prove very costly in the second half. Baltimore's Joe Flacco came out and mercilessly picked on the overmatched Arrington and Marquice Cole, marching the Ravens down the field with ease to three straight touchdowns. The helpless Patriots never recovered and had to watch their hated rival win a Super Bowl two weeks later.
Last week? Well, there's plenty of absences (Vince Wilfork, Mayo, Tommy Kelly) to point at, but nothing hurt the Patriots more than their secondary. Arrington was abused in the first three series by the Jets Jeremy Kerley to the tune of four catches (all converting third downs), 54 yards and a touchdown. According to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, he was benched after that third series and played only three snaps the rest of the way.
Arrington's absence brought rookie Logan Ryan into the starting lineup, who acquitted himself pretty well. Ryan's pick six was obviously one of the few highlights on the day for New England and the rookie looked relatively comfortable for a guy seeing his first extensive NFL action. The amount of playing time Ryan got in the preseason seems to be paying dividends, as the rookie was, to use Bill Belichick's favorite word, "competitive" out there.
Unfortunately, Arrington's demotion also bumped Marquice Cole up to a crucial role as the team's nickel corner. Cole is an excellent special teams player and by all accounts a solid locker room guy, but you are in trouble if he sees extensive time out there at cornerback. Cole stood out in a bad way Sunday, with his poor arm tackle attempt on Geno Smith's touchdown run particularly standing out.
The logical approach following Sunday's performance seems to be more playing time for Ryan. Seemingly every time Arrington starts, the corner gets burned to a crisp. I think I speak for Patriots fans everywhere when I say we've all seen that movie too many times. He has proven to be effective in the nickel and should be kept in that role. Devin McCourty has the ability to play corner, but has proven to be far too valuable at safety to move back.
That leaves the rookie, Ryan, to man the outside across from Dennard until Talib can return. Not only does this enable the Pats to keep Arrington and McCourty at their best positions, but it gives Ryan some starting experience that could prove handy should Dennard's ongoing legal situation render him unavailable at any point. The Patriots could really use another corner (one who isn't Marquice Cole) to step up and prove to be a viable option. If Talib remains sidelined, Ryan deserves the chance to earn that role going forward.
Opportunity knocks for Ryan, but Sunday's performance reinforced a point I've been hampering on for some time. The Patriots secondary, despite it's great statistics this year with Talib, simply doesn't have the horses to afford any significant missed time from their two starters. Considering Talib's injury history and Dennard's ongoing legal saga, it's a dicey position for a team counting on it's defense (and specifically it's secondary) more than ever this year to be in.