There's no question that with the loss of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, that cornerback Aqib Talib became the class of the defensive unit, with safety Devin McCourty right alongside him. In fact, some could argue that Talib has been the best defender on the team all year- and I doubt you'd have many rebuttals.
Talib has shut down talent like A.J. Green, Vincent Jackson, and Jimmy Graham and has been one of the best cornerbacks in all of football. Unfortunately, he tweaked his hip flexor in last week's game and was unable to practice for most of this week. He returned to practice today, although he was unable to finish warm-ups.
And you know what? He should take the week off. He should rehab, of course, but the Patriots can't afford to risk Talib's health any more. The aforementioned loss of Wilfork and Mayo are big enough holes to fill; if the Patriots lost Talib? Well, then the season would just go from "Uphill Battle" to "Beyond Nightmarish".
When it comes to this upcoming week, you know that Bill Belichick and the defense aren't going to underestimate the Jets offensive weapons. Still, their offense likely won't be featuring Santonio Holmes, their #1 receiver who caught 3 passes for 51 yards in Week 2 against the Patriots, and their lead running back Bilal Powell is going to be playing with a sore neck and shoulder that he earned last week.
The Jets' offense?
Running Back: The slightly roughed up Powell, backed up by the extremely underachieving Chris Ivory (who is bumped up from the RB3 spot due to Mike Goodson's ACL/MCL injury).
Wide Receiver: The 6'4, 215 lbs Stephen Hill out of Georgia Tech (4 catches, 86 yards vs NE in week 2) has been an early bright spot on their roster at WR2, but received a concussion in week 4. He's since recovered, but after opening the season with a 6/6 game, he's followed up with an Aaron Dobson-esque 52.2% reception rate. With Holmes (WR1) out, Clyde Gates (WR3) was tagged to step up in the offense, but has been placed on the IR with a shoulder injury.
That leaves WR4, and slot player, Jeremy Kerley to step up and, quite honestly, he is a player to watch who can actually do some damage. Since Kerley joined the Jets in 2011, he's led the team in the five games against the Patriots with 21 receptions on 32 attempts, for 320 yards and a touchdown. Last season, he posted the 5th most yards from the slot position in the entire league. He lines up in the slot nearly 75% of the time, so Kyle Arrington is going to have his hands full, and I wouldn't be surprised if he received some help with bracketing.
Behind Kerley, and in the de facto WR3 and WR4 spots for this game are the newly signed David Nelson (signed October 1st, 38 total snaps so far) and Greg Salas (signed October 15th, no snaps so far).
Tight End: Former #1 TE Kellen Winslow was their top receiving threat at the position (3 receptions, 4 targets, 16 yards vs NE in week 2), but is now suspended due to PEDs. That leaves Jeff Cumberland, who has stepped up in a big way and has been one of the more consistent tight ends in the league over the past few weeks. Standing at 6'4, 250 lbs, he's not as physically imposing as some other receiving tight ends in the league, but he gets the job done. He was actually their primary blocking tight end until Winslow was removed.
Behind Cumberland stands Konrad Reuland (21 snaps all season) and old friend Zach Sudfeld (1 snap last week). You know Rex Ryan will make Sudfeld an honorary captain this week, but the Patriots have little proven depth outside of Cumberland to worry about.
So we're left with the main weapons: RB Powell, WRs Hill and Kerley, and TE Cumberland. If you go by Pro Football Focus's ratings, none of them have a positive grade on the season, although they're all hovering right below average. They're not really too imposing of an opposition, and that leads to New England's decision:
Do they play Aqib Talib against this offense?
Looking back at Pro Football Focus's ratings, you might be surprised to find that the Patriots defensive backs are a top 5 unit in football. Not just on the Patriots, but in the entire NFL. The Patriots are one of two teams with their entire nickel front posting over a +1 grade (the other is San Francisco). Devin McCourty is their highest rated safety and Aqib Talib is their 5th ranked corner.Their combined score is second in the NFL for the best duo, behind the Titans' Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty. The starting secondary is up with the Titans, the Chiefs, the 49ers, and the Seahawks for the best in football.
But should they start Talib?
The Jets offense looks to be pretty vanilla at face value. They have a couple of strong running backs of similar builds in Powell and Ivory, with Ivory historically showing a little more power and Powell showing a little more versatility. They have their big wide receivers in Hill and Nelson (even though Nelson played out of the slot in Buffalo), and they have their slot receivers in Kerley and Salas. They have their do-everything tight end in Cumberland, and they have some unproven depth behind him.
Is it worth starting Talib against this unit?
Looking at the match-ups, Talib has been shadowing receivers, so his run defense isn't as needed, even while facing a unit that's been as strong as the Patriots has been this season (interpret this in however positive or negative you wish). That said, I wouldn't expect the Patriots defensive game plan to change too much with the loss of Mayo, in the fact they won't have the corners help compensate for the loss of Mayo's skill set. I think Fletcher will step in, alongside Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes to shore up the front seven against the Jets.
Against the tight ends, while Cumberland has been a great player for the Jets, I don't expect the Patriots to give him Jimmy Graham-like attention. I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots opted to bracket him with Hightower underneath and Steve Gregory over the top. (fun fact: Cumberland and Michael Hoomanawanui were teammates at Illinois and both graduated in 2010).
And that leaves the wide receivers. We already know the Patriots will stick Arrington on Kerley like glue. And that leaves the stud-in-the-making Alfonzo Dennard without an assignment. And that leaves Stephen Hill with coverage to be determined. And still, I don't think the Patriots shadow Hill with Dennard.
Dennard makes his living on the defensive right side- the quarterback's left side- while Hill is asked to do most of his damage on the defensive left side (opposite of Dennard). If Hill is ever moved to line up across Dennard, I feel like Dennard would be more than capable. More likely, I expect the Patriots to line up Logan Ryan across from Hill with McCourty providing support over the stop. That would leave Dennard on an island against whatever additional player the Jets put on the field, but I believe he is more than up to the task.
Fact is, there's no one on the Jets who demands the same attention as a Jimmy Graham or a Julio Jones that can't be schemed out by Belichick. The real question is where the Patriots are going to focus their resources; which Jets player do they care about removing from the game the most? No matter the selection, the challenge should be able to be accomplished without playing Talib (I'm voting for Kerley).
The Patriots have the depth at cornerback that they've never had before and this upcoming game against the Jets will prove it. The Patriots should sit Talib and they should be able to have a successful day with him on the sideline.