FOXBOROUGH — The official stat sheet says Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib didn’t have much of an impact in Sunday’s 30-27 win over the Saints. He didn’t record a tackle or make any big plays, and the only numbers he compiled were one pass defended and one punt return for minus-11 yards on a trick return that was botched by Julian Edelman.
But anyone who watched the game knows that Talib was downright dominant while matching up against star tight end Jimmy Graham until leaving with a hip injury in the third quarter. Graham, who entered the game with 37 catches, 593 yards, and six touchdowns, was shut out Sunday, held without a catch (on six targets) for the first time since Week 8 of 2010, his rookie season.
Graham, the Saints’ dynamic 6-foot-7-inch tight end and the NFL’s leading receiver entering the day, was initiated into an impressive club on Sunday. He was neutralized by Talib — much like Stevie Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green were earlier in the season.
Talib had help from safety Devin McCourty, and McCourty did an admirable job of matching up with Graham in the second half once Talib left the game (Graham himself left the game for a spell because of an ankle injury). But Patriots coach Bill Belichick had enough trust in Talib, who entered the day tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions, to give him Graham responsibilities, and Talib deserves special recognition for being the first player in the NFL season to shut down Graham and Drew Brees.
Talib wasn’t available to speak after the game because of his injury, but his performance through six games this year has been downright impressive. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Talib had allowed completions on just 11 of 28 balls thrown his way this year — for a percentage of 39.3, and an anemic passer rating of 30.8.
Pretty good timing for Talib, who will be a free agent this offseason and has seen his value soar over the first six games.
“We know Aqib is a great corner — that’s not a secret,” said Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, a former Patriot. “Coach Belichick has obviously been doing it for a very long time, and is very efficient when it comes to game planning for specific games, so we knew we were going to get something special for this game.”
Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will get the headlines Monday after scoring the winning touchdown with five seconds left, but this win was all about the defense. The D limited the Saints to 361 total yards and got two crucial three-and-out stops late in the fourth quarter to give Brady a couple more opportunities to win the game.
And it was a lot of unheralded players helping to slow the Saints’ ninth-rated offense. There was tackle Joe Vellano, the undrafted rookie subbing for an injured Vince Wilfork, leading the team with eight tackles, while fellow rookie Chris Jones, subbing for an injured Tommy Kelly, had three.
Rookie defensive backs Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon got a lot of playing time against the Saints’ four-receiver sets. Linebacker Dane Fletcher filled in admirably for Jerod Mayo after he left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter. Kyle Arrington also had a crucial interception to help the Patriots add on 3 points in the fourth quarter.
“Luckily we have some depth in the secondary, and guys like Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon came in for us and gave us some key plays in the second half,” Belichick said. “Then when Aqib got hurt and we went to some six-DB packages, those guys came in and competed really well.”
The Patriots were also the first defense to frustrate Brees this year.
His 236 passing yards represented a season low (he cracked 300 yards in four of his first five games), as was his 47.2 completion percentage on 17-of-36 passing. They also took out his best receivers, shutting out Graham and holding receiver Marques Colston to just one catch for 11 yards.
Interestingly, the Patriots were able to throw Brees out of rhythm without pressuring him much. He was sacked just once and had all day to throw, but the Patriots were able to disrupt the Saints’ offense by playing a lot of press-man coverage and bumping the New Orleans receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Talib, with his lanky 6-1 frame, often played on the line of scrimmage and did a nice job of throwing Graham off track.
“They played a lot of bump and run, really tried to attack the timing on routes,” Colston said. “We were able to find more of a rhythm in the second half and crawl back into the game, but any time you’re playing a team this good on the road you’ve got to make plays for 60 minutes, and we didn’t do that today.”
Saints coach Sean Payton credited Belichick for drawing up a good defensive game plan.
“They do a really good job of getting hands on receivers and tight ends. They disrupt you at the line of scrimmage better than anyone,” Payton said.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, he didn’t play as well.’ I credit New England. They did a real good job with those guys at the line of scrimmage and got just enough pressure. One of the things we said early in the week was, with the amount of man coverage you get, often times you need to hold the ball. I think that they do a very good job of contesting throws at the line of scrimmage.”
Belichick deflected the praise to where he felt it belonged.
“Once again, it’s the players making the plays,” he said.
After the game, Brees felt like the Saints’ offensive problems were mostly self-inflicted.
“The opportunity for big plays is always there any time you have one-on-one matchups,” he said. “We just weren’t as efficient as we should have been.”
But he and Graham are now just two more members of a not-so-exclusive club — the quarterbacks and receivers rendered ineffective by Aqib Talib.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.