FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There's a simple explanation of how the midseason acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib has had a positive effect on the New England Patriots' defense, and captain Vince Wilfork explained it best Wednesday.
"Any time you can basically say, 'Hey, you got this guy and we are going to cover everybody else,' that is a good sign," Wilfork said.
That's it, really, and it was most recently on display in Sunday's AFC divisional-round victory over theHouston Texans when Talib effectively covered Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson all over the field for long stretches of the game. It has been a few years since the Patriots had a cornerback like that, going back toAsante Samuel (2003-2007), and before him, Ty Law (1995-2004).
"Being able to isolate him in some situations [allows us] to do different things," said Wilfork, the All-Pro now in his ninth NFL season. "He is a special player. He's made this defense better, and we're happy to have him."
"He's a good football player, good teammate [and] he's very well respected because of his professionalism," Belichick said of Talib. "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. I'm glad he's on our football team. He's certainly made us a better football team."
Linebacker Jerod Mayo, who took a few visits with Talib prior to the 2008 draft in which they were both first-round selections, noted that Talib's height (6-foot-1) and long arms brought a different dynamic to the defense.
Talib's positive impact in New England, which comes after he wore out his welcome in Tampa Bay following a string of off-field missteps, is drawing attention as the Patriots prepare for Sunday's AFC Championship Game against a Baltimore Ravens team known for, among other things, its potent deep passing game.
The Ravens, led by strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco and speedy receiver Torrey Smith, thrive off the big play. Talib's job is to limit them, and his presence since first suiting up Nov. 18 against the Indianapolis Colts has been a big reason for the Patriots' success in doing so.
Since Talib's first game with the Patriots, only the Tennessee Titans allowed fewer 30-yard pass plays than New England, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
That's a striking change from the generous-to-the-opposition Patriots defense that surrendered a 32-yard touchdown catch to the Ravens' Smith on Sept. 23, and lost a heartbreaking game in Seattle on Oct. 14 when Sidney Rice caught a 46-yard touchdown. In the nine games before acquiring Talib, the Patriots had given up 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more.
By that time, coach Bill Belichick knew he needed help in the secondary, and it helped that theTampa Bay Buccaneers -- under first-year head coach Greg Schiano, a close friend of Belichick's -- had decided they wouldn't be re-signing Talib next season when he would be an unrestricted free agent. Talib was in the middle of a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances at the time of the trade, and the Buccaneers were committing to some of their younger players.
The deal came together right before the Nov. 1 trade deadline -- the Patriots giving up a 2013 fourth-round draft choice in return for Talib and a 2013 seventh-rounder. Had the deadline not been pushed back a few days because of Hurricane Sandy, perhaps it might not have come together at all, because the Patriots were scrambling to return from their trip to London.
Talib, who hadn't played in the playoffs in four seasons with the Buccaneers, is glad that it did.
"This is what you play for, man," he said. "You want to have a chance to get in the tournament. I got my shot at the tournament and I'm going to try to make the best of it."
Talib added that one of the things he appreciates about the culture in New England is that it's all about football. The structured, football-first environment, and how teammates welcomed him after the trade, suits him well.
"It's real football; that's what I like. You come here and you know you're going to play some real football," he said. "When you're little and you think about being in the NFL, you think about being in this situation. It's ideal for me."
Meanwhile, Talib has won over Belichick and his teammates with his approach to the game. Belichick described his presence Wednesday as "very positive," which wasn't what some "anonymous personnel men" were saying about Talib and what the Patriots gave up in the trade. (Are these anonymous types ever held accountable?)
To be fair, some of Talib's off-field transgressions opened himself up to scrutiny. But others who know him predicted he'd thrive in a rigid environment, similar to running back Corey Dillon and receiver Randy Moss before him. And the fourth-round draft choice given up has been well worth it for the Patriots, in part because of Talib's cover skills, and also because of the trickle-down effect of being able to move Devin McCourty to safety.
"He has really improved this defense in the passing aspect, and as you saw last week, he can tackle a little bit," Mayo said, referencing a solid fourth-down tackle on Texans running back Arian Foster. "He is a football guy, always in the film room trying to learn, giving tips to guys."
"He loves the game," Wilfork added. "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 1, we saw his passion and love for the game."
To this point, it's been a near-perfect match between team and player. The Patriots needed help in the secondary and Talib needed a fresh start.
It's brought out the best in both.