With each passing week, we learn more and more about each NFL team and what its true level of talent and performance is in terms of the 2013 campaign. We know a lot more in Week 6 than we did before the season, but it’s still not a heck of a lot. As I mentioned last week, remember that last year’s Colts entered Week 6 at 2-2 and were blown out by 26 points by Mark Sanchez. They went 9-2 after that. After six games a year ago, each team in the AFC East was 3-3; the Patriots proceeded to finish 9-1, while the rest of the division went 10-20. The Redskins started 3-3 and were about to go on a three-game losing streak before winning the NFC East. There’s a lot of football left to play, folks.
Of course, it’s also true that we don’t learn equal amounts of information about each team each week. Last year’s Colts, obviously, were a high-variance team through five games: They had beaten the Packers, but they also got blown out by the Jets and lost at home to the Jaguars. It was clear some talent was there, but the possibilities were still pretty open-ended. A team like this year’s Jaguars obviously isn’t going to rip off a seven-game winning streak. They’re a much lower-variance team, and we know a lot more about them right now than we did about last year’s Colts.
So, with six games in the books for most teams, let’s examine how sure we are — well, how sure I am, I guess — about the league’s 32 teams. I’ve separated them into four groups and put together the first Confidence Level Tier Rankings. I’ll also try to explain why I’m relatively sure or unsure about each team. I’m tempted to even separate the sureness tiers by how sure Joe Cabot was about the people on his team in Reservoir Dogs, but, let’s face it, this is already a pretty Simmons-y idea as is. Another time.
Surer Than Sure
These are the eight teams I feel most confident evaluating; they’re the least likely to offer up major surprises, for better or worse, over the remainder of the season.
Both are flawed but fun teams, but in different ways. The Bears, as Robert Mays mentioned this past week, have finally flipped the switch from being a team run by its defense to one being run by its offense. The Bears are going to move the ball with their passing game, but their defense can’t stop the run and can only stop the pass with takeaways. Their front four is disintegrating more quickly than space stations in Gravity. If they force takeaways, they win; if they don’t, they lose.
Meanwhile, the Browns are almost the polar opposite. They have a great defense that’s going to keep them in a lot of games, with or without takeaways, but their offense with Brandon Weeden basically comes down to magic from Josh Gordon. There was a brief burst of competence with Brian Hoyer, and that might reappear if they turn things over to Jason Campbell, but with Weeden, they are the 6-10 team that CBS’s fourth-string announcing team notes is the one you “don’t want to play” as they lose 16-10 four consecutive weeks in December.
These are two of the league’s best teams with the same game plan: throw the ball all over the field, rush the passer, and never get caught in a slugfest. Obviously, if Drew Brees or Peyton Manning get injured, they’ll look dramatically different, but these two teams seem awful sure to win 11-plus games and claim their divisions comfortably.
The poor man’s 2011 49ers, the Chiefs never turn the ball over, play stifling defense with an incredible pass rush, dominate field position, and wait for you to make a mistake. It’s very clear this team is going to beat up every weak team on its schedule (and oh, there are still so many to come) and that it has very little hope of beating the Broncos or anybody serious in the AFC.
New York Giants
A way more expensive nope. After that Bears loss, it was incredible to see every Giants fan I know immediately start hoping the Giants end up tanking to get Jadeveon Clowney. Personally, I am just going to try to avoid mentioning it until it happens.
This is the same team every week: an offense that is going to look like a filtered version of the most exciting team in football from last year, and a defense whose angular, subversive dissonance with form tackles raises comparisons to D.C. legends like Q and Not U.
I’m Pretty Sure …
This is the quarter of the league that seems reasonably narrowed down through Week 6. There are still a few question marks, but they’re a degree safer than the next batch.
Arizona’s defense has looked really impressive with Daryl Washington back in the lineup after his suspension; it had a terrible scare on Sunday when Calais Campbell was stretchered off with an injury, but it fortunately looks like he will be OK. Unfortunately, its offense is wildly turnover-prone with Carson Palmer at quarterback, and with Bruce Arians refusing to give more carries to Andre Ellington (7.0 yards per carry plus excellent receiving skills) at the expense of the plodding Rashard Mendenhall (3.3 yards per carry, two fumbles), the offense is basically dependent upon big plays from Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd.
New York Jets
Here we have three teams with gaping holes holding them back at quarterback. The Bills have the most talent on defense and could be the best once their secondary gets healthy, but they also have the least hope at quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis’s Sunday aside.1 The Vikings have Adrian Peterson, who is enough on some weeks to overcome the total absence of a quarterback, but the Vikings are choosing between Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and Josh Freeman without any prep work, which keeps the upside low. And the Jets have the best quarterback of the group in Geno Smith, but it’s going to take a big step forward in terms of Smith’s decision-making near the red zone for him to stand out, and even then, the rest of the offense isn’t very good.
For those of you who participated in the #thadchallenge, send your screenshots to me on Twitter on Tuesday. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you will on Wednesday.
Aaron Rodgers is going to keep the Packers in every game, and his receivers are probably going to drop at least one would-be touchdown a week. The defense is going to struggle with injuries and look good when everybody is healthy. The question mark here is the running game, which was very impressive on Sunday, with Eddie Lacy running for 120 yards on 23 carries. If they can keep that up, the Packers might very well be a Super Bowl contender.
Some massive turnover spike on defense might be enough to push the Steelers into competency, but their inability to run the football whatsoever and their average defense make it tough to expect a sudden swing.
Secretly one of the league’s worst defenses, the Chargers are plenty capable of keeping up in shootouts, but their package of no rushing offense and no passing defense means any team worth its salt will be able to catch up to a Chargers lead in the second half. This basically makes them the 2012 Lions West, which seems … actually, pretty fair.
As much as I’m fond of noting that the Buccaneers are one bad play per game away from having three wins, it really doesn’t feel like an accident that they keep having that bad play each week. This week’s blunder saw them fall victim to the vaunted hard count of the legendary Nick Foles, who had no intentions of snapping the ball on fourth-and-1 from the Buccaneers’ 17-yard line with an eight-point lead and 3:04 to go. Would it be surprising that a team coached by a guy who likes his defense to attack victory formations would be too anxious in a situation when they shouldn’t have been aggressive? No? You don’t say.
Significantly Less Sure
These are eight teams for whom much is still up in the air. Many of the teams in this group are playoff contenders, but it’s still unclear whether they should be considered locks to make it to January, solid bets, or long shots.
Not this team, though! Atlanta’s playoff hopes are basically gone after the injury to Julio Jones left it without its best player. It’s clear the Falcons’ defense isn’t very good, especially against the pass, but it’s now unclear whether their offense will be any good without Jones (or Roddy White, apparently).
The three teams the Cowboys have beaten are a combined 4-13 and the three teams to whom they’ve lost are a combined 14-3. The analysis sounds simple — they beat the bad teams and lose to the good ones — but they came within three points of dethroning the Broncos and needed six takeaways to beat the Giants by five points at home,2 so that doesn’t really fly. There are some things about this team I know — Tony Romo is great, Dez Bryant is ridiculous, Jason Hatcher is really good, and everyone in the secondary not named Brandon Carr is not — but its running game is still a huge question mark, and DeMarcus Ware hasn’t been a force this year. A lot about Dallas is still up in the air.
That does include the Giants scoring with a few seconds to go, but the Cowboys were also 5-for-5 on fumble recoveries, so I’m going to say that washes out.
The Lions are similar to the Buccaneers, but because they have a better quarterback and a competent head coach, they achieve more. It’s always nice to match your previous season’s win total by Week 6, but the Lions have narrowly beaten the Redskins, Vikings, and Browns for three of their four wins, and the schedule is about to get a lot harder. We’ll know more in a month.
I felt confident I had seen the worst of the Texans, but then Houston got blown out by 25 points at home by the Rams in a game when fans cheered their starting quarterback’s ankle injury.3 That takes us down a bleak path. What’s the opposite of seeing light at the end of the tunnel? Maybe Matt Schaub will be OK and build off his competent performance against the Rams, and the people who somehow thought T.J. Yates was a better option will kick their habit and get behind Schaub for the rest of the year, and the defense will play really well the rest of the way, and the Texans will end up an 8-8 or 9-7 team. It seems equally possible that Case Keenum will be throwing three-yard stick routes to Garrett Graham down 20 points at home against the Jaguars in six weeks.
To be clear, the people cheering the Schaub injury represent a small subset of the Texans’ fan base. I have no qualms with the 98 percent of Texans fans who didn’t cheer the injury. But the 2 percent who did? That 2 percent of fans deserves to have their team move somewhere else again.
Yes, the Colts have looked great the last three weeks. But one of those wins was against Jacksonville, and they were getting blown out for most of the first quarter against the Seahawks, only for Seattle to let them back into the game by punting on fourth-and-short. They handily outplayed the Niners, but the Colts nearly lost to the Raiders at home and then actually did lose to the Dolphins in Indianapolis; those games count, too. The good news is that even if they go 9-7 (and they’re likely better than that), it will probably be good enough to win the AFC South.
I’m unsure because the offense is still waiting on Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola to be healthy and active at the same time, which might not happen this season. Amendola’s groin is still hampering him, and he was knocked out on the field this week by a helmet-to-helmet hit that surely produced a concussion. Gronk might be back next week, but by the time Amendola returns, will Gronk still be healthy? And what happens if they’re both healthy and the offense still isn’t all that great? That’s the gap between a 12-4 team and a 10-6 team.
Will the defense ever stop anybody? Hell, Mike Glennon threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns against Philly this week, and he’s basically a mannequin with a really well-designed robot arm. Remember that last year’s Redskins blew the Saints out of the water in Week 1 (revealing that defense to be terrible, just as the Eagles did against the Redskins in Week 1 this year) and continued to be impressive on offense, but the defense struggled so much that they wrote the season off after Week 9 before going on a seven-game winning streak to finish the campaign. People who think Chip Kelly’s offense is going to wear off (or has already worn off) should remember how the read-option didn’t wear off last year; this stuff is going to continue working, and if the Eagles get any kind of help from their secondary, they could be a very competent football team.
Are the Seahawks a good team or are they the caliber of the best team in football? So far, it seems like the former. In the best-team pocket, they have that blowout win over the 49ers at home. In the other, they have narrow victories over the Panthers, Texans, and Titans, and a close loss to the Colts. I think they have the talent level to be the best team in football, and they’re only going to get better as their injured/suspended players (Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, and soon Percy Harvin) come back and get back in the swing of things. But the results haven’t been there yet.
These are the teams that might as well be starting their seasons today. They’re either so inconsistent or their context is changing so rapidly that I have little faith in what I think I know.
I’ll get to the Ravens in a minute, but they’ve now lost to the Bills and blown out the Texans, which is a weird mix.
If it’s true that Ron Rivera is going for it on fourth down all the time now, as he said after Sunday’s blowout win over Minnesota, the floodgates might open for the Panthers. Their defense is legitimate, especially against the run, and I have faith in their ability to run the ball on just about anybody in football. I just don’t believe that Rivera will stick to his guns and continue to go for it all year. Their passing game is also wildly dependent upon the matchups that Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell get as secondary targets and if they can exploit them.
This might be the most schizophrenic team in football. Have a shootout with the Bills one week after holding the Patriots to a pair of field goals in a win? Sure. Beat the Packers and lose to the Browns a week later? Why not? Wildly entertaining, but hardly knowable.
Does that promising 3-0 start look worse because the Dolphins have lost their last two games, or does it look better because they’re the only team to beat the Colts? Is there a running game in there anywhere? Is their offensive line any good? They were 16th in points scored per game and 16th in points allowed per game heading into the week, so maybe they’re just an 8-8 team with some random streakiness built in.
It’s entirely possible that Terrelle Pryor is really good and that the defense full of cast-off veterans is good because it knows where to be at all times and doesn’t make any mental mistakes. On the other hand, Pryor could just be on a hot streak, the offensive line could prevent any sort of running game success, and the defense could fall apart very quickly. Again, a wide range of possibilities.
What if the passing attack never shows up? What if Colin Kaepernick is consistently inconsistent, Michael Crabtree is never healthy, and Mario Manningham is irrelevant? And what if the pass rush doesn’t come back until Aldon Smith comes back? Then you have an anachronism, a team that can run and stop the run with little aptitude for the passing game in 2013.
Has any team had higher highs and lower lows? The Rams’ three losses are by a combined 55 points, but after blowing out Houston to go 3-3, their three wins are by a combined 42 points. Contributing to the uncertainty are the two big offseason weapons for Sam Bradford — Tavon Austin and Jared Cook — who have basically been nonfactors after Week 1. Austin had one catch for three yards on Sunday. If they can get their running game going, something that hasn’t been a problem with Zac Stacy so far, they could actually have a very nice offense to go with that great front four on defense. But waiting on the Rams rushing attack is basically the football Waiting for Godot.
I know nothing about this team going forward, and I’ve watched it very closely this year. Is Chris Johnson terrible because he’s washed-up, because the line sucks, or because this happens to Chris Johnson seemingly every year and he rebounds in a few big games after this? There are stars on the defense, but will Gregg Williams’s effectiveness wane as teams begin to see his specific blitz packages on tape? And while everyone knows what Ryan Fitzpatrick can’t do, can the Jake Locker who was improving before his injury come back quickly enough to lead the Titans toward the playoffs?
The Cald of the Mild
One thing that does seem clear from six games is that the Ravens offense isn’t living up to expectations. After scoring 30 points per game during its improbable run to the Super Bowl last January, there was certainly hope that Baltimore would be able to carry its offensive success into the 2013 season. The Ravens lost Anquan Boldin during the offseason, of course, but they brought back all the things that were supposed to have caused that sudden uptick in performance after averaging 24.9 points per game during the regular season. They brought back a much-improved Joe Flacco, who produced one of the best runs in postseason history, throwing 11 touchdowns without a single interception. Jacoby Jones was supposed to step in after his starring role in last year’s playoffs. Bryant McKinnie was going to re-solidify the line at left tackle after being inserted into the lineup in Week 17 a year ago and dramatically improving things. And the Ravens were going to get a full season with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who took over for the fired Cam Cameron in Week 15 and built an offense around those new guys and the best players from the previously established bunch.
That just hasn’t happened. After Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Packers, Baltimore is averaging just 22.3 points per game, and that might even overstate things. It was a lowly 25th in offensive DVOA heading into the week, and considering that the Ravens had just two drives of 25 yards or more before they were down 13 points in the fourth quarter on Sunday, that figure probably isn’t going up. Baltimore finished with 360 yards from scrimmage, but 63 of those yards came against wildly blown coverage on a fourth-and-21 Hail Mary to Tandon Doss,4 and 18 more came on the touchdown pass to Dallas Clark on the next play. Baltimore’s defense did a great job of keeping Green Bay quiet for most of the first three quarters, but the Ravens’ offense couldn’t come up with sufficient work on the other side to take a lead.
There have been 12 plays since 1999 when a team has picked up fourth-and-21 or more; Flacco has two of them. In addition to the Doss bomb on Sunday, the Ravens famously converted fourth-and-29 in their comeback victory against the Chargers last season.
Why hasn’t the Baltimore offense lived up to expectations? The obvious excuse is injuries. Dennis Pitta went down with a serious hip injury in training camp and hasn’t played. Jones missed four games with a sprained MCL. His replacement was Marlon Brown, who missed Week 5 with a hamstring injury. Ray Rice missed a game with a hip issue. Because the Ravens are up against the cap and used what little space they had this offseason to upgrade on defense, Baltimore was stuck using replacement-level free-agent talents like Clark, Brandon Stokley, and Billy Bajema in skill-position spots on offense. As we’ve seen with the Patriots, that doesn’t often end well.
Beyond that, it was clear before the season that the Ravens were going to depend upon players who had only looked good in the playoffs after a season (or seasons) of mediocrity. Jones had chance after chance to become a no. 2 wideout in Houston and never impressed there; he showed up to Ravens camp out of shape and is likely going to play behind Brown as the third wideout. Ed Dickson was supposed to take over Pitta’s role, but he lacks the athleticism to do so. And Baltimore had signed McKinnie after the Vikings got sick of him, benched him after one season of middling play, and then took him out of mothballs for a decent four-week stretch of football. Caldwell’s pro résumé beyond his time with Peyton Manning was close to blank. And, well, in part because of those issues, Flacco hasn’t exactly been the same guy he was during last January, either:
Look at that passes per game number in the second column. Flacco is throwing way more frequently this year, about seven times more per game. Part of that has to do with the Ravens playing a faster pace without having played any games where they were blowing out the opposition for most of the contest, but it’s clear the Ravens have put more of an emphasis on Flacco throwing the ball as the core of their offense this year. Flacco threw the ball on 55.1 percent of their plays from 2010 to 2012; this year, that figure is up to 61.5 percent.5
The Ravens ran the ball more than they threw it during last year’s playoffs, but that was the effect of a bunch of leads, not the cause.
It’s hard to figure out which one is the chicken and which one is the egg, but that relates to the Baltimore running game being wildly disappointing this year. On Sunday, the Ravens could muster only 47 yards on 22 rushing attempts against the Packers. Through its first six games, Baltimore — which averaged 4.3 yards per carry each of the past two seasons — is producing a mere 2.7 yards on each carry, which is 31st in the league. Only the Jaguars are less efficient on the ground. Flacco is averaging more yards per carry than Rice or the wildly disappointing Bernard Pierce. Even worse, Rice’s fumble issues from the playoffs haven’t gone away; after fumbling once every 218 touches during his previous regular-season career, Rice has fumbled twice in 92 touches this year. That might very well be a total fluke, but it has unquestionably hurt the team.
The Ravens can also help themselves out by playing well in crucial situations. They have picked up just 35 percent of the third downs this year, good for only 23rd in the league.6 Before Sunday, their red zone offense was averaging 4.8 points per trip, just above league-average, but the Ravens had a rough time against the Packers. Baltimore made four trips to the red zone Sunday, including three trips inside the 10-yard line, and came away with just 17 points. Key among those drives was a four-down failure after first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, with Rice stuffed on third-and-1 and Pierce brought in to fail on fourth down. Then, when they got the ball back after a missed field goal from the Packers, the Ravens decided to launch a drive from their own 34-yard line with 20 seconds left before halftime, only for Flacco to lose the ball on a sack and allow the Packers to attempt another field goal, which they successfully converted. I’ll spare you the speech about how Super Bowl winners do these little things right, but the Ravens don’t have a large enough margin of error on offense right now to get away with slipping in those situations.
Then again, the 6-0 Chiefs are 27th in third-down conversion rate, and the 5-1 Seahawks are 28th.
So, what’s the solution for the Baltimore offense? Start with time and luck. Flacco hasn’t been pretty this year, but his interception rate should come down over his next few hundred passes. Even if he’s not going to avoid interceptions altogether, his interception rate is nearly double what it has been in the past. Jones came back from his injury this week, and while Pitta is unlikely to return at anything resembling 100 percent if he even comes off short-term injured reserve, Rice should be healthier after the Week 8 bye. The Ravens will need better work from their offensive line, but that might actually happen: Baltimore traded two draft picks for Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe two weeks ago, and while Monroe was inactive in Week 5, he started in Week 6 in place of McKinnie, who was a healthy scratch.
The young guys also need to start playing better. They’ve already gotten unexpectedly nice work out of Brown, an undrafted free agent out of Georgia, but the players around him need to show more. Pierce was supposed to be a Ben Tate–caliber backup this year, but he’s been strangely bereft of burst and vision. Second-year linemen Kelechi Osemele (left guard) and Gino Gradkowski (center) need to clear out space for Pierce to run between the tackles while maintaining a clean pocket for Flacco to step into.
And while Caldwell isn’t young, he’s inexperienced in terms of coordinating this Baltimore offense; his game against the Steelers will be just his 14th game at the helm. In his first 13 games, his Ravens have averaged exactly 25 points per game. Cam Cameron was run out of town during the 2012 season during a disappointing campaign in which the offense, under Cameron, averaged … 25.5 points per game. I don’t think Caldwell’s been worse than Cameron, and flags fly forever, but it’s clear that simply putting his name on the coordinator’s door wasn’t enough to transform this Baltimore offense.
The running game hasn’t necessarily been effective this year, and this is normally an argument incorrectly used as a confusion of cause-and-effect, but I think it’s pretty clear that Caldwell needs to get back to running the ball more frequently. Running in the early downs should create space in the secondary for the dig routes and curls that are a big part of the Baltimore offense, and they should help keep the safeties honest before setting up some of the big plays that play to Flacco’s arm strength. The Ravens have been unsuccessful running the ball this year, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be the second-worst running team in football all season. With the soft front seven of the Steelers across the field next week, Week 7 might be Baltimore’s chance to get their ground game going, and I think that could be the spark that ignites the Baltimore attack.
Can you imagine how many column inches and tweets had to be scrapped when New England’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-6 deep inside its own territory actually ended up preceding a game-winning drive? I try to be outcome-neutral, but I have to admit it was nice to see after a day filled with color commentators tapping their rings on the table between comments about how teams lost their momentum by going for it on fourth-and-1 when they should have taken the easy field goal. But more on that tomorrow, of course.
Independent of what happened, were the Patriots right to try to convert on fourth-and-6? It’s an unlikely enough play call that it’s hard to run the numbers, but I can understand the logic that Bill Belichick likely had in his mind when he decided to go for it, and it makes some sense. It’s also true that the plan Belichick likely had didn’t work.
Let’s reset the stage for that situation. The Patriots were down 24-23 with 2:50 left and the ball on their own 24-yard line, facing a fourth-and-6. They had all three of their timeouts and the two-minute warning to stop the clock. Punting was obviously on the table, but it would also force the Patriots to produce a stop; if the Saints picked up a pair of third downs, they would likely be able to squeeze enough juice out of the clock to win. More notably, the Saints would be motivated to try to move the ball downfield to pick up a field goal, which was a bad sign for a team that was without Aqib Talib (more on him in a moment).
It might seem counterintuitive at first, but in a way, it was actually better to give Drew Brees and the Saints that field position (in the case that the Patriots failed, of course). In that scenario, the Saints would likely want to remain conservative in order to burn time off the clock while retaining their field position for a likely field goal, which is exactly what happened: They ran the ball twice, threw an incomplete pass on third down, and kicked a 39-yard field goal to take a four-point lead. Belichick likely thought that turning the ball over to the Saints’ passing game was the worst possible outcome of all, because it made it likely his team would never get the ball back. He chose the option that took the ball out of Brees’s hands, with the upside of converting for a first down and the downside of likely getting the ball back relatively quickly with a more difficult goal, needing a touchdown as opposed to a field goal.
Here’s the problem with that logic: It didn’t work. When the Patriots did get the ball back, Tom Brady threw an ugly deep ball into double coverage for an interception that appeared to end the game. That plan — to gift the Saints a field goal and get the ball back quickly — was to score a touchdown on this drive. It didn’t happen. Instead, the Patriots managed to squeeze a third possession out of some friendly circumstances. Brady’s pick was on a bomb, so the Saints didn’t get great field position. It was on the first play of the drive, so the Patriots didn’t burn any time on this second possession trying to score. The Saints went three-and-out with running plays, but the Patriots stopped the clock twice with their final timeout and the two-minute warning, so they got the ball back with 1:20 left. Then, with most of the die-hard Patriots fans already cleared out onto Route 1, New England launched a stunning drive to come back and score a game-winning touchdown.
In all, I don’t think the fourth-and-6 call was obviously right or wrong, but I also don’t think it did what it was intended to do. Now, did Sean Payton screw up his end of the bargain? Again, I don’t think so. I heard from folks after the game who thought Payton shouldn’t have thrown on third down, a move that stopped the clock and saved a timeout for the Patriots, but getting a first down in that situation is really valuable. I’m usually very harsh on NFL coaches who get conservative inside field goal range and just settle for a long kick, because it normally works out poorly for them (see: Garrett, Jason). Payton is one of the coaches who has had success making aggressive moves in those situations, namely after the Falcons were stuffed on fourth-and-inches on their own 29 against Payton’s team in 2011. Then, he moved the ball to the 8-yard line before John Kasay kicked a game-winning 26-yarder; the difference between the 46-yarder that was cued up by the Falcons and the 26-yarder the Saints eventually attempted is pretty significant. I don’t blame Payton for trying to produce a touchdown or for trying to complete a pass.
Talib Quells D
During parts of the fourth quarter, Brees was without his star receiver, Jimmy Graham, due to a lower-leg injury. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Brees was without Graham all day; there were just times when Graham was on the field and times when he wasn’t. Graham finished the game with zero catches on six targets, his first zero-catch game since he became Jimmy Graham in 2011. The biggest reason why Graham didn’t have an impact was Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, who shadowed him across the field (including at the tight end position) before leaving the game in the third quarter with a hip flexor injury. The Patriots will have to hope Talib’s injury isn’t serious, because he has been phenomenal this season. Alongside Joe Haden, Alterraun Verner, and Richard Sherman, Talib has been one of the best cornerbacks in football.
Now, judging a cornerback by what a certain type of receiver has done against his team is a very dangerous game for a number of reasons. Most corners don’t chase guys from side to side, and even when they do, there are still a fair number of plays when motion or formations will dictate that another player picks up that receiver. With that being said, while the Patriots haven’t devoted Talib to a specific player every single week, he’s been primarily focused on the other team’s top receiver. Here’s how that has gone against New England this year:
That’s a pretty fearsome group of top receivers, especially over the last four weeks, and Talib has been up to the task. The average performance for these guys has been three catches for 49 yards; if you knew you could limit the other team’s top target to those numbers before the game, you would happily take it in a heartbeat.
In addition to his abilities as a cover cornerback, what Talib might offer Belichick at this point of the season is a sort of schematic comfort. Before the Super Bowl two years ago, Grantland’s Chris Brown wrote about how Belichick structured his defense around Vince Wilfork, his one elite defensive player at the time. The rest of the defense has gotten better, but with Wilfork sidelined for the year and the Patriots playing fill-ins at defensive tackle, they have to commit with safety help to stop the run at times. Talib’s abilities as a cornerback might very well allow Belichick to structure his defense again around an elite, reliable player who can take care of a difficult task one-on-one, albeit at a different level of the defense.
In any case, Talib is making a great case for himself as an impact cornerback after years of flashes and false starts. He was an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but he wasn’t able to find a significant long-term deal on the market and returned to the Patriots on a $5 million deal. If this hip flexor injury isn’t serious and Talib continues to play at this level for the remainder of the season, he might be able to tack another zero onto the end of that contract figure next spring.