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What will Patriots do if Aqib Talib is sidelined?

10.17.13 at 6:55 pm ET
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It's looking more and more like Aqib Talib will be sidelined this week. (AP)

It’s looking more and more like Aqib Talib will be sidelined this week. (AP)

FOXBORO — Less than 24 hours after he tossed his helmet aside disgustedly on the sideline after an injury forced him from last Sunday’s game against the Saints, Aqib Talib strolled through the Patriots locker room on Monday afternoon. Asked by a reporter if he was available to speak, he said he would catch up with the media later in the week.

That was the last we’ve seen Talib, and it could be another week or so until anyone outside the New England locker room sees him again. The cornerback, who has been so dominant over the course of the first six games of the season, suffered a hip injury in the second half of Sunday’s win over the Saints. He didn’t return to play down the stretch, and hasn’t been seen at practice on Wednesday or Thursday. His absence at practice — and in the locker room — these last two days is a pretty good sign that he won’t be able to go Sunday when the Patriots meet the Jets Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.

Initial reports indicate that he’ll be out for at least a week, but even for a limited time, the loss of Talib would be a difficult one to bear for a New England defense that will be without linebacker Jerod Mayo and lineman Vince Wilfork for the duration of the season. The Patriots have played very good team defense through the first six games of the season — New England has allowed 16.2 points per game, good for fourth in the league, and its in the top half of the league in pass defense and average defensive yards allowed — and a sizable reason for their success is Talib. The corner has picked off four passes through the first six games, and won almost all of the one-on-one battles he’s had with the opposing teams’ best pass catcher. Whether it’s been Julio Jones, Jimmy Graham or Vincent Jackson, Talib has worked (with some safety help) to render them ineffective.

Going forward, the Patriots do have some flexibility at the cornerback position, as Devin McCourty made his bones at the spot for the first two-plus years of his career before making the move to safety. He could move back to corner, and New England could pair strong safety Steve Gregory with one of the young safeties like Tavon Wilson (who has been dogged by a hamstring as of late), Nate Ebner (more of a special teamer) or rookie Duron Harmon.

New England could also keep McCourty at safety while shuffling their existing group of corners. Alfonzo Dennard could make a move up the depth chart from No. 2 corner to lead corner, while Kyle Arrington — who has performed so well as the slot corner over the last year — could kick out to the outside. That would also likely mean a promotion for rookie Logan Ryan, who played well in the slot when given the chance over the course of the preseason, as well as some snaps for veteran Marquice Cole.

(For what it’s worth, after Talib left the game Sunday against the Saints, as long as Graham was on the field, McCourty appeared to be working as a corner, while the Patriots went with Harmon at safety. Once Graham left because of a foot injury, it looked like McCourty went back to safety, Harmon went to the sidelines and Ryan came in as the third cornerback.)

The move could also signal a move from more of a man-based system to more zone coverage. To this point in the year, Talib’s strengths have been utilized mostly in man coverage, but without an elite corner, the Patriots could try and paper any coverage deficiencies that might arise with a switch to more zone schemes.

Ultimately, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick said when Wilfork went down — and later, hinted when Mayo was placed on season-ending injured reserve — you cannot simply hope to replace either Wilfork or Mayo with just one player. Instead, it would on a collection of players to replace that level of production. The same is true when it comes to Talib. The Patriots have always stressed team defense; now, with Wilfork and Mayo out for the season and Talib likely sidelined for (at least) one week, that belief in team before of individual takes on a whole new importance for a defensive unit that will have to operate without some of its most valuable players for the foreseeable future.

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