When the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams meet this Sunday in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, there will be one very key match-up taking place that ultimately could determine which one of the two teams will advance to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, Georgia.
When the two teams met previously back in Week #10 (November 4th), Rams #1 cornerback Aqib Talib was on Injured Reserve recovering from ankle surgery and did not face New Orleans; and as a result, Rams #2 CB Marcus Peters was forced to draw the tough assignment of guarding Saints #1 WR Michael Thomas — who BURNED Peters to the tune of 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown, sealing the win for the Black and Gold.
But now Talib is back and the L.A. defensive coaching staff led by legendary Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, is certain that the 32-year old and wily 11th year veteran will do a much better job at guarding Thomas than Peters was able to.
Whether that will be the actual way that things eventually play out or not, there’s no denying that the Rams will have to find a way to stop Thomas, who unquestionably had the best game of his career that day against Peters.
Peters had been ranked as one of the the worst cornerbacks in the entire League by the good folks over at Pro Football Focus in nearly every category (touchdowns allowed, yards allowed per play, interference penalties, etc.) coming in to that early November Regular Season meeting; and Saints head coach Sean Payton instructed Thomas and QB Drew Brees to take full advantage.
Bottom line: Peters simply was no match for Thomas — and the Saints did everything in their power to exploit it.
After the game the next day out in Los Angeles, Peters made headlines by “calling out” Payton; who in his post-game press conference told reporters the one-on-one match-up between Thomas and Peters was one that the New Orleans coaching staff considered to be very favorable and was one they sought to target specifically at Peters’ expense.
Peters covered Thomas all game long, and was likely further angered after he yielded a 72-yard game-winning touchdown to Thomas that ultimately led to a flip-phone celebration ― as well as the first loss of the season for the Rams after they had come to the Superdome that day with an undefeated (8-0) record.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 5, 2018
“They were going to travel Marcus to him, and that was fine by us,” Payton told reporters. “We thought we really liked that matchup — a lot.”
Said Peters to Rams reporters the following day in response to Payton:
“Tell Sean Payton, keep talking that s—, we gonna see him soon. You feel me? Yeah,” Peters said. “Cause I like what he was saying on the sideline too. Tell him he can keep talking that s—. And I hope he sees me soon. You feel me? Then we’re gonna have a good little, nice little bowl of gumbo together.”
A Super Bowl berth 🏆 and a bowl of gumbo on the line 🍲!
— Yahoo Sports NFL (@YahooSportsNFL) January 14, 2019
But Peters doesn’t have to worry about any of that now with Talib back, and the Rams are counting on the likelihood that he can do a much better job of covering Thomas than Peters did.
As it is, Talib won’t have much of a choice; especially considering that Thomas is coming off of another dominant performance this past Sunday in the Divisional Round win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Thomas finished with 12 catches on 16 targets for 171 yards and a TD.
But here’s the biggest question, which is: will Talib actually do a BETTER job in coverage against Thomas in pass coverage than Peters did?
That all depends on who you ask.
“Talib is going to challenge him,” former Carolina Panthers All-Pro receiver and NFL Network analyst Steve Smith told Los Angeles Times columnist Sam Farmer yesterday.
“I believe that Michael’s not going to back down, but it’s also a first for Mike. He’s a young kid. Talib is a savvy vet, he knows what he’s doing. He knows what impression he wants to make. He’s not out there to make friends. Mike isn’t out there to make friends, either.”
Smith should know, since he and Talib have faced each other several times in the past.
Additionally, Orange County Register Rams beat writer Rich Hammond notes that since Talib’s return, the Rams are playing more zone defense than they did in early November. Hammond adds that Los Angeles typically likes to have Talib and Peters each stay on one side of the field, but Talib would seem to be the better match-up option against Thomas, so the Rams would be wise to have him “travel” with Thomas in Sunday’s contest.
The Rams defensive coaching staff believes that the off-coverage technique employed by Peters in the first meeting didn’t work, leaving Thomas wide open on a variety of different routes.
And even though Thomas isn’t a “speed demon” by any means, Peters seemingly was unable to match the former Ohio State University star’s quickness; as he was beaten off the line of scrimmage for a handful of easy catches including that now infamous 72-yard TD that has since become a meme on the Internet.
The Rams obviously feel that Talib is more than capable of keeping up with Thomas; although there are several well-known persons in the NFL that believe differently, and none so more than the front office management of the Denver Broncos ― the team that Talib won Super Bowl 50 with against the Panthers nearly three years ago.
Talib was released by the Broncos prior to 2018 NFL Free Agency last year; and ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported at the time that the “sentiment” within their organization was that the former Pro Bowl cornerback wasn’t worth his salary any longer; and that his declining play didn’t justify his price tag.
Re: Aqib Talib, despite 5 consec Pro Bowls, I heard this sentiment w/i org: “It’s tough to to pay a 30+yo CB that kind of money when he’s not playing at the level of his salary. (It’s not that) he hasn’t tried, guys fall off.” Talib ’18 cap #: $12M. Dead Cap: $1M = $11M savings. https://t.co/fhqNRewFZh
— ig: josinaanderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 1, 2018
Re Aqib Talib, was also told: “Obviously the best thing for both parties is prob. to try to move him so he can kp his salary, but I don’t think someone is going to even trade for a 30+y CB who mks that kind of $. So the end result is like most older players is they get released.” https://t.co/EwH4QwYpOZ
— ig: josinaanderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 1, 2018
Talib’s numbers in the past two seasons would seem to support the Broncos’ front office’s decision to release him. Talib had only one interception during the 2017 NFL season, which was the lowest single-season total of his career. Additionally he only recorded 31 tackles, which was his lowest total since recording 28 of them while he was still a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers way back in 2008.
This past season in his first year with the Rams, Talib only appeared in 8 total games because of the ankle injury; and tallied one interception, 5 PBU’s (passes defensed / batted down), a forced fumble, and 23 total tackles (18 solo).
In 8 total career games against the Saints dating from his rookie year with Tampa Bay to his time with the New England Patriots in the 2013 NFL Season, Talib has zero interceptions, one fumble recovery, 4 PBU’s, and 26 total tackles (22 solo).
Long story short: Talib is still a quality player, but he’s nowhere even close to the caliber of player that he was when he arrived in Denver as a free agent from New England back in 2014 NFL Free Agency.
That certainly bodes well for the Black and Gold this Sunday ― in a key match-up that could ultimately determine the NFC Championship and which one of these two teams advance to Super Bowl LIII (53)….