Cornerbacks are getting bigger and more versatile. Few places are those concepts more evident than in New England.
Hybrid safety/cornerbacks like the Patriots' Devin McCourty are appearing more frequently across the league, and it's a strategy that can really work when you have a highly skilled cover cornerback already on the roster.
In New England, that cornerback is Aqib Talib.
Expect him to square off against Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown often when the two teams face each other at 4:25 p.m. ET in Week 9 at Gillette Stadium.
Brown, the NFL's leading receiver with 56 catches, grabs 76 percent of his targets (56-of-73), one of the highest percentages in the game among the top receivers on every team. Much of his work is being done underneath, as the main target on hot routes. Often, in the Steelers offense, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sees something he doesn't like, he's changing the play for a quick screen out to Brown, basically making Brown the team's top receiving and rushing weapon. Those short passes are going for a few yards a pop, and are used in a fashion more similar to a running game - used on early downs, usually if Brown is seeing off-coverage.
Talib has been an outstanding acquisition for the Patriots over the last two seasons. He was released in Tampa Bay after serving a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. New England picked him up in November, and quickly became their best defensive back. His shaky past only merited him a one-year contract with the Patriots this offseason, but grabbed four interceptions in the six games he's played.
Injuries have been an issue with him, and he's listed as questionable for this game with a hip injury.
If Talib is out there, expect the Steelers to test him early and often, using Brown to work underneath and test his ability to cut . If the Steelers can utilize Brown in the same possessive fashion as they have been, and even open him up to deeper passes, they can control the clock. Talib's playmaking ability, however, has contributed to a Patriots team that has gone a ridiculous 35 consecutive games with at least one takeaway.
It's a daunting stat, and one the Steelers won't risk adding to, so expect the safe pass, like the Steelers were doing during their short-lived two-game winning streak in Weeks 6-7.
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