ATLANTA - For all the talk this week about whether or not the pass rush of the Rams can reach and disrupt Tom Brady, the real key to Los Angeles’ chances may lie with a face with whom Brady is very familiar. And the person who understands that best is the guy running the Rams’ defense, 71-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
For all the talk of Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Rams’ powerful defensive front, it’s a skinny guy in the back who may well hold the key to Los Angeles’ fortunes Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We wouldn’t be here without him,’’ Phillips said this week of Aqib Talib, the 32-year-old cornerback who five years ago was manning the corner in New England and three years ago was doing the same for Phillips’ Denver Bronco defense that hit Brady 17 times and forced him to go 27-for-56 in a 20-18 loss in the AFC Championship Game that propelled Talib to his first Super Bowl championship.
“He missed some games,’’ Phillips said of Talib, “but those 10 games he played, we played pretty good. So he’s a big part of that.”
How big became obvious when he wasn’t part of it. For eight weeks Talib was on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain, returning seven games ago following the bye week. While Talib was out the Rams’ defense struggled mightily, allowing 25.6 points per game, leaving them a disappointing 20th in scoring defense.
Worse, despite a feverish pass rush, the Rams’ pass defense was allowing an average quarterback rating of 101.6 and had given up 25 touchdown passes while making only 10 interceptions. Enter the wily Talib, who may sound fun but is no joke.
Since Talib returned, the Rams are allowing only 21 points a game and a QB rating of 80.5 while making nine interceptions and allowing the same number of touchdown passes (nine in the last seven games). In the 10 games the Rams played with Talib this year they allowed an average of only 18.3 points per game. In the eight without him, they gave up 30.8.
Prior to facing the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, Saints’ head coach Sean Payton was asked if things might be different than New Orleans’ 45-35 regular season win, when Drew Brees threw for 346 yards and four touchdowns and wide receiver Michael Thomas scorched cornerback Marcus Peters and the Talib-less secondary for 211 yards on 12 catches.
“Well, I think it’s significant,’’ Payton said of Talib’s presence in the rematch. “I think there’s a leadership element — a guy with a ton of playoff experience, he’s been in the postseason, he’s an extremely, extremely smart player. You see that on tape. He’s got real good ball skills as well. He’s got size, he can play press, he can play off in their zone coverages.’’
Payton had no idea how significant.
In that rematch, Brees was limited to 249 passing yards and his quarterback rating, which was 137 in the first game, tumbled to 88.4. As for Thomas, he was blanketed by Talib, finishing with four catches for 36 yards.
That late-season turnaround may not all be attributable to Talib’s return but when he’s in the lineup Phillips can do far more things knowing half the field will most often be erased from the offensive equation.
Few coaches understand that better than Patriots head man Bill Belichick. He acquired Talib to stabilize a struggling secondary midway through the 2012 season and for a year and a half he was an anchor, the same one Phillips was happy to have on his side in Denver and now by his side in Super Bowl LIII.
"(Talib's) a very talented player,’’ Belichick said this week. “Peters is on the other side. I mean, they have two great corners that can match up, really, against any receiver — big, fast, quick, savvy. Those guys can cover anybody.
"They're both very good with their ball skills. As we know, Talib's got great hands, makes some tough catches. If you make a mistake around him, it's not an incompletion. It could be going the other way. So, he's a very instinctive guy, as is Peters, and they recognize routes, combinations. They have a real good feel for the pass rush, they know when the quarterbacks can't hold the ball and they're on their guys.’’
That is particularly true of Talib, whose importance to what the Rams can do defensively is made obvious by the numbers. One can talk about the importance of defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh pressuring Brady up the middle, where he hates to feel pressure. One can debate whether Dante Fowler will harass him from the edge. These are critical factors because while the Rams average 2.6 sacks a game the more significant numbers are their 9.6 hurries and 5.9 quarterback knockdowns per game, which rank fifth and seventh in the league respectively. Yet the truth is those numbers increase significantly when Talib is manning one corner.
In playoff wins over the Cowboys and Saints, Talib allowed only 29 passing yards. In the 10 games he’s played he has yet to give up a touchdown pass. That kind of wet blanket coverage allows pass rushers the extra second needed to get into a quarterback’s face and change a game.
“You see it in their team, how much better they played on defense with him,” Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty said admiringly this week. “He’s a leader. I think he really gets guys to follow him when he goes out there and plays. I thought he brought a great edge to our team when he came for the two years he was here.”
Yet Talib is more than just a shutdown corner. He is that rarest commodity – a physical corner who is one of the most cerebral defenders in the game. He wins his matchups both physically and mentally.
“He knows everything,’’ says Rams’ safety John Johnson. “He puts us at ease.”
Johnson cited a fourth-and-1 situation against the Cowboys in the divisional playoffs as an example, Although Dallas ultimately converted, Johnson marveled at Talib’s grasp of the situation.
It was 4th-and-1 at LA’s 42 in the fourth quarter, the Rams leading 30-15. Dallas had already gone for it on fourth down multiple times, including to start the fourth quarter, when L.A. stuffed running back Ezekiel Elliott behind the line of scrimmage. This time, Talib insisted, something else was coming.
“He called something out and I couldn't believe it,’’ Johnson said. “It went just exactly how he said it in the game, He (scrambling quarterback Dak Prescott) converted, right, but, we completely just went rouge of what the coverage was. It worked for us, but he kind of ran around and got the first down.”
For all his jokester personality and high-pitched voice, Talib is a student of the game. He understands what he has to do and what you’re trying to do, which is what will make Sunday’s matchup with his old friend Tom Brady a cerebral chess match as much as a violent confrontation.
“This is dope, man,’’ Talib says of facing Brady again after beating him three years ago to deny him a trip to the Super Bowl. “Just to be able to experience this again with him — it’s special because he’s the GOAT. He’s gonna go in the Hall of Fame one day. And just to be a part of that, just to be a part of that with coach (Phillips), it’s dope.
“I got confidence in Coach Wade. He’s going to come up with a game plan that’ll allow us to play fast. That’s what you got to do against New England. You got to play fast. You got to go out and study a lot ‘cause it’s gonna be a tough task.
“We got to prepare and go out and play football. No words are really going to help you. No advice is going to help you in the game. The game is going to be the game. Go out, study and execute the game plan.
“They got a bunch of different ways to attack you. Whatever you do, they’re gonna have a way to counter. So I do more thinking in the game. I’m really trying to think and help people out on the field.’’
The truth of his success with that is obvious in the Rams’ defensive numbers with and without him this season. That’s why Aqib Talib may well be the most significant factor on the field Sunday not named Tom Brady.