Mixed returns on Talib debut

FOXBOROUGH — The final line for cornerback Aqib Talib in his Patriots debut won’t have fans remembering the glory days of Ty Law or Asante Samuel.

Talib, in his first game action since Sept. 30 after a performance-enhancing substance suspension and trade to the Patriots, allowed six receptions on 10 targets for 120 yards and two touchdowns, and had one interception returned for an electrifying touchdown.

Sometimes statistics mean a lot in football. Most times they do not. Just ask coach Bill Belichick.

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When it comes to Talib, his final line tells about half the picture.

There was some good. Some not so good. But the underlying message seemed to be about what we expected: once he gets through an adjustment period and he gets his feet under him, Talib is certainly going to help the Patriots.

“It was all right,” Talib said when asked for his opinion on his performance. “A little sloppy. My feet were everywhere. It will get better as I get back in these pads and getting back into a little bit better shape, I think I’ll be all right.”

For a while it looked like Talib would be forever etched in the minds of Patriots fans for his sensational 59-yard interception return for a touchdown (is he available for kickoff returns?) that gave the Patriots their first lead at 21-14, and they never looked back.

But the ball was one of two terrible interceptions Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, in his best Tony Romo imitation, threw that were returned for scores.

Chalk the interception up to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who split two Colts to hurry an off-balance throw from Luck as he tried to move up in the pocket.

“Luck overthrew the ball and kind of threw it right to me,” Talib said of his 19th career interception, and fourth returned for a score. “Defense did a great job setting up that wall. We got in the end zone.”

That wasn’t even Talib’s best play, even though it resulted in a turnover. He was just sitting back in a three- or four-deep zone and the ball came to him.

“It was just a plain bad throw,” Luck said.

Amazing what happens when a defense gets constant pressure up front, isn’t it? And that was a theme after the Colts took a 14-7 lead and Belichick spent considerable time with the defense on the sideline drawing up something on a whiteboard.

Talib actually showed his promise on the first two passes that were thrown at him, even though they were both completed.

On third and 7 with 3:32 left in the first quarter, Talib got one of his few chances to line up in press coverage (his biggest strength). Luck and receiver LaVon Brazill worked the indefensible back-shoulder throw for a 25-yard completion, but Talib was right there in perfect position.

Three plays later, Talib was playing in a three-deep coverage as the Colts had first down from the 14-yard line. Talib played it correctly, and it took an absolutely terrific throw from Luck and catch from T.Y. Hilton to beat a hard-charging Talib, who just missed deflecting the ball away.

“I just didn’t play good technique,” Talib said. “I kind of let him widen me to get back inside.”

On the next two plays, Wilfork batted down a ball that was headed for Hilton, who had broken free of Talib across the middle, and the interception.

After that, Talib’s play became more inconsistent, perhaps a sign of fatigue and rust after such a long layoff.

Reggie Wayne had a back-shoulder completion against Talib for 6 yards, and then there was a 21-yard pickup by Brazill when Talib couldn’t catch up on a shallow cross.

Talib was beaten soundly in man coverage by Brazill off the line on second and 10 with 6:01 left in the second quarter, but, in what has been too rare a sight this season, a cornerback was bailed out by good safety play when Devin McCourty broke up the possible touchdown at the 3-yard line.

Talib had very good coverage against Nathan Palmer in the end zone right before halftime on an incompletion. In the third quarter, Talib gave a lot of cushion in zone coverage as Hilton picked up 16 yards.

And then in his last real competitive coverage, Talib didn’t offer much resistance as Hilton scored a 43-yard touchdown with 12:32 left in the game.

“I had my eyes in the wrong spot,” Talib said. “Eyes exactly where they shouldn’t be on the quarterback, so I watched him throw a touchdown on me, that’s what I did. Got to get a lot better.”

What you saw on that play is what you get from Talib. He’ll play very strong for much of the game, but he’ll have a few plays where his focus and technique are sloppy.

It’s a coverage that Talib is going to have to become more comfortable with, because it’s a Patriots’ specialty: the “good luck playing man coverage when you’re 7 yards off the receiver” scheme. It would seem to put the cornerback in a tough position, but the Patriots play it a lot.

So Talib started strong and started to fade, but he showed enough, especially considering the Patriots won going away, 59-24.

What we know after one game with Talib is that he excels playing closer to the receiver when he can use his size to his advantage.

He’s an outstanding tackler on the outside and is not afraid to take on much larger tight ends high.

Those are two things the Patriots definitely can build on. They’ll need to get Talib to be more fundamentally sound for 60 minutes, and improve his conditioning.

“You go sit down for five or six weeks then come out and have a game in a week, I mean, you’re not going to be your ordinary self,” Talib said. “As I put the pads on, practice, more games, I think I’ll be all right.”

Talib’s debut was probably about average on the whole. But considering he just got here and hadn’t played in six weeks, there’s a lot of promise.

Now it’s up to the Patriots to get him there.

Just having Talib seemed to bring a little bit of stability to the secondary. Once he gets up to speed and the team is able to better identify his strengths and put them to proper use, Talib should be more impactful.

And for starters, that’s a very good sign for the Patriots.