There were no hard feelings on the part of Aqib Talib when the Denver Broncos traded him to Los Angeles during the offseason, even after his fifth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl and only two seasons removed from his first and only All-Pro selection.
Football is a business and the rebuilding Broncos needed to dump salary. The Rams, coming off an 11-5 season in which their defense finished in the middle of the pack in yards and points allowed, were heading in the opposite direction, looking to load up in order to make a run at the Super Bowl.
Talib was a natural fit. Having spent time in New England (2012-2013) and Denver (2014-2017), the 32-year-old veteran corner is accustomed to playing on the sport’s biggest stage and the Rams knew they needed his experience and physicality to contend with some of the top offenses in the NFL.
The plan seemed foolproof until Talib suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 that required surgery and forced him to spend eight games on the short-term injured reserve list. He returned just in time for Los Angeles’ early-December win over the Lions, but the team’s splits with and without him were staggering. In the eight games Talib missed, the Rams allowed an average of 30.8 points per game. With Talib on the field, they’ve allowed just 18.3 points per game, including the Rams’ postseason wins over Dallas and New Orleans.
What this all means is a.) the numbers, which show Los Angeles dropping from 12th to 20th in points per game allowed from 2017 to 2018, really don’t matter and b.) Talib is an absolute game-changer on defense, as evident by the aforementioned splits. As the Rams prepare for their first Super Bowl appearance Sunday in 17 years, there’s a case to be made that this secondary, which has a fully-healthy Talib opposite Marcus Peters, may be an underrated facet of Los Angeles’ defense.
Teammates point to Talib’s undeniable confidence, which has rubbed off on other players. He has a dominant personality and the swagger with which he plays has no doubt made Los Angeles tougher defensively, perhaps similar to the way Rodney Harrison revitalized the Patriots upon his arrival in New England in 2003.
“When you watch him in a room, and watch the respect they have for him, you can tell he's just different,” offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. “I've said the same thing about [head coach] Sean McVay. When you meet him, after five minutes, you know he's different. Aqib is like that. It's striking, the command he has of the room. When you're that much of an influence and you're gone, it's a void, and we felt that earlier in the season.”
Given his experience against Brady, Talib might be the key to slowing down an offense that finished fourth in the league in scoring. Since 2006, Brady has posted a measly passer rating of 61.9 when targeting Talib. That ranks third behind Ronald Darby and Cortland Finnegan on a list of corners targeted 20 or more times by Brady during that span. Talib was dominant against New England as a member of the Broncos in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, allowing only 14 yards on four targets.
Having spent two years in New England, Talib knows better than to take this challenge lightly, and he’s leery of those who think the Patriots’ core offensive players – namely tight end Rob Gronkowski and the 41-year-old Brady – are playing on borrowed time.
“He looks like Gronk to me,” Talib said of Gronkowski. “All the shots, they’re coming from you guys. They don’t come from guys watching the tape. If you watch the tape, you’d see.
“He’s big, he’s fast, he’s physical at the top of his routes. All in all, he has a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing him the ball, so the ball is pretty much going to be where he needs it to be. It’s going to be a tough challenge.”
Return to normalcy
A defensive back you don’t hear much about – not with Talib taking center stage this week – is Sam Shields, who is heading back to the Super Bowl for the first time in eight years.
An undrafted free agent out of college, Shields reached the top of the mountain as a rookie in 2010, helping the Packers beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, but he suffered four reported concussions over the next six years. The last one, suffering during Week 1 of the 2016 season, landed him on injured reserve. He sat out all of 2017 while recovering, and his headaches were so severe at times he wondered whether he’d ever play football again.
The Rams signed him to a one-year deal in March, a low-risk, high-reward move that has paid dividends. Shields played in all 16 games this season, primarily on special teams with a smaller role on defense, and showed some versatility in the conference championship when he caught a pass on a fake punt for a first down with the Rams trailing 13-0 in the second quarter.
“It feels great to get your name called and to take advantage of it,” Shields said of the bold call by McVay in New Orleans. “It was a crucial moment. I’ve been in crucial moments before, and I know how to take advantage of it.”
Just for kicks
Both teams are healthy beyond belief heading into Super Bowl LIII, but the Rams are still monitoring kicker and playoff hero Greg Zuerlein, who is battling a sore foot this week. Zuerlein has been limited in practice after injuring his plant foot in the NFC Championship Game. He was seen walking with a boot afterward, but McVay is confident he’ll be ready for Sunday.
“He’s on track,” McVay said.
Zuerlein kicked four field goals against the Saints, including the game-tying 48-yarder with 15 seconds to go in regulation and the 57-yard game-winner in overtime following a forced turnover by the Rams’ defense.
While general manager Les Snead is credited for fueling the Rams’ spending spree during the offseason, which included the acquisition of Peters, Talib, Ndamukong Suh and Brandin Cooks, among others, the foundation was built through years of smart, savvy draft picks.
Running back Todd Gurley (2015) and quarterback Jeff Goff (2016) were selected with first-round picks in back-to-back seasons at 10th and 1st overall, respectively,. The pick used on Goff was acquired from Tennessee in a blockbuster trade earlier that month in which they moved up the draft board for the right to select first. They also built part of their offensive line through the draft, selecting guard Rodger Saffold in the second round of the 2010 draft and adding tackle Rob Havenstein five years later, also in the second round. Neither player missed a start this season.
On defense, the Rams used draft picks on linebackers John Johnson and Samson Ekubam last year and hit the jackpot in 2014 with the selection of all-world tackle Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick, 11 picks after they nabbed offensive lineman Greg Robinson, who is no longer with the team. Defensive lineman Michael Brockers was a first-round pick two years prior to Donald in 2012.