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A year ago the New England Patriots traded a fourth-round pick for Aqib Talib — a talented but troubled cornerback who was in the middle of a performance-enhancing drug suspension.
Commentators couldn't understand how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got such a high pick for a player with such a history of off-field issues. One league source told SI's Greg Bedard, "Are you kidding me?? How did [Tampa] get that?!"
It was a pure desperation move. It was Bill Belichick's last-ditch attempt to fix a bottom-five pass defense that threatened to single-handedly derail the season.
It paid off, big time.
Yesterday Talib had one of the most impressive single-game performances for a defensive player all year. He matched up with star tight end Jimmy Graham, who came in averaging 7.4 catches and 118 yards per game. Talib held him to zero catches on six targets.
Over the last 12 months the Patriots' pass defense has gone from a weakness to a strength. They're currently ranked 13th in the NFL in passing defense (according to Football Outsiders) after finishing 23rd last year.
The breakdown in the defensive stats before and after Talib's arrival is impressive:
- Since starting Talib (15 games): 247.7 passing yards per game, 18.9 points per game, 12-3 record
- Before Talib (9 games): 285.3 passing yards per game, 22.3 points per game, 6-3 record
The popular notion that Belichick is master of reclamation projects — taking previously troubled outcasts from around the league and turning them into model citizens — is largely a myth.
But he hit the jackpot here.
Talib's problems were never really associated with football. It was all off-field stuff: fights with teammates, an arrest for allegedly assaulting a cab driver, another later-dropped aggravated assault charge, and the positive performance-enhancing drug test.
That's why the trade was so risky.
But, as we saw yesterday when Talib shut down the most dominant tight end in the league, his talent is overwhelming. And Belichick has found a way to make him flourish.
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