FOXBOROUGH — Practice was starting in less than 10 minutes, so Patriots players were busy getting taped up and dressed. But a personal challenge had been issued, and Aqib Talib is simply not someone who will ignore, or decline, a personal challenge.
Fellow cornerback Marquice Cole said he didn’t think Talib could do 35 pull-ups. Talib said otherwise. Off they went to the weight room.
One, two, three pull-ups for Talib, who didn’t stop until he reached 35. Winner.
“He banged out the 35, right before practice,” Cole said. “We’re both really competitive. Even when he’s wrong, his stance will be so strong. If you tell him, ‘You know, the sky is blue,’ he’ll say, ‘Well, actually, it depends on what the color blue is, if you look at the light spectrum . . . ’ He’s very confident.”
Talib’s confident approach comes through on the football field, too. Some could argue cocky, based on the animated trash talking Talib engaged in with Panthers receiver Steve Smith last month, or his sideline preening after his last-minute interception sealed the win over the Falcons Sept. 29.
But one thing is clear: Talib, who signed a one-year contract with the Patriots in the offseason after being acquired late last season in a trade with Tampa Bay, loves the competitive arena of the NFL, especially the receiver vs. defensive back chess match. He looks forward to competing against the best receivers, and since many view Talib as New England’s most skilled cornerback, he regularly lines up against the opponent’s top wideout.
It’s a weekly battle he thrives on, occasionally even going out of his way to get it. During joint preseason practices with the Eagles and Buccaneers in August, Talib literally cut in line, jumping the defensive backs in front of him so he could get first crack at DeSean Jackson (Eagles) and Vincent Jackson (Buccaneers).
“He always wants to compete against the best and feels like it brings out the best in him,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I think he’s ready to meet any challenge that we’ve given him, whether it be in the kicking game, defensively, run responsibilities, coverage responsibilities, whatever it happens to be. If it’s something that will help the team, he wants to do it.”
Like most defensive backs, there will be some individual highlights over the course of a season, and plays he’d rather have back. Talib has a team-high four interceptions, but the most recent came in the Week 4 win over the Falcons. He’s also had success against some of the biggest names at the receiver position, helping to hold down Cincinnati’s A.J. Green (five catches, 51 yards) and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (four catches, 41 yards).
Talib’s best job this season, though, might have come against a tight end, not a wideout. Drawing the assignment for much of the game on Saints star Jimmy Graham, Talib and the Patriots held a player who has scored 14 touchdowns and is averaging nearly six catches per game without one. No catches, no yards, no touchdowns.
Others have enjoyed the upper hand against Talib. The Patriots, who rank 16th in the league this season against the pass, have allowed four players to go over 100 receiving yards in a game. Three are wideouts (Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is the other), and two have come in the last two weeks. Andre Johnson (third in the NFL in receiving yardage) caught eight passes for 121 yards for the Texans two weeks ago, and Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (first) had seven catches on Sunday for 151 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown with Talib in coverage and giving chase.
This Sunday, Talib might see time against two Dolphins in Miami. Brian Hartline (67 catches, 855 yards) and Mike Wallace (58-762) are the Dolphins’ go-to receivers, so expect Talib to be in the mix on those defensive assignments.
“With a team like [Miami], you have to kind of pick your poison,” Talib said Wednesday, during a teleconference with Dolphins media; he has not made himself available to local media yet this week. “Who’s going to get the one-on-one matchup? You’ve kind of got to pick, you can’t double everybody.”
No matter the opponent, Talib is always asked about the team’s best wideout, and is almost always complimentary. He also always thinks he’ll be able to slow down whatever player he’s asked to cover; Talib isn’t afraid of being brash.
“He brings a lot of confidence to the group, definitely brings some swagger,” safety Steve Gregory said. “He’s a fun guy to be around, a good teammate, studies hard, [and] puts in the preparation, just as hard as anybody else on this team. He definitely brings a good amount of energy to the game, not only on Sundays, but every day in practice and in the meeting rooms. He brings that, and it definitely spreads among the other guys.”
Belichick might not spend much time in his team’s locker room, but he’s fully aware of Talib’s infectious influence on his teammates.
“He has a very good energy and he’s a good teammate. I think he’s very respected in the locker room but liked in the locker room, which is not always the case. I think he has a good rapport with everybody: the offensive players, the defensive players, the DBs and the skills players, but also the other guys, the linemen,” Belichick said. “He just has a good way about him.
“He’s not the class clown, but at the same time, he has a good personality and he’s serious and he’s competitive. He’s got a nice mixture of all those things.”
Talib also has a passion for, ahem, healthy debate. Encounter a group of defensive backs in the Patriots locker room, and they’ll likely be conducting a loud, colorful argument on a certain topic, with Talib loudly in the middle. Which is the better movie, who’s the better point guard, where’s the best this or that.
Never will anyone admit defeat. Especially Talib.
“No, that’s impossible,” Cole said. “But that’s what makes it fun.”