Aqib Talib leads Rams' secondary with savvy, poise and swagger

ATLANTA -- Aqib Talib plays cornerback with the subtlety of a DMX rap, and his words often pack a similarly potent punch. It's not surprising, then, that when asked about the circumstances that compelled the Denver Broncos to trade him to the Los Angeles Rams last March, the 11th-year veteran offered a blunt assessment of his former franchise's state of affairs.

"It was, 'We got three corners making (at least) $10 million a year, and ... our quarterback sucks, so, s---, we gotta clear up some money somehow,' " Talib told last Thursday. "It's football, man -- it's part of our job. I wasn't trippin'. I don't think it had anything to do with my play. The year before I left, I was All-Pro. I enjoyed my time there, and it worked out cool."

At least in the short term, the decision to send the five-time Pro Bowl selection to L.A. for a fifth-round draft pick worked out much better for the Rams, who'll rely heavily on the 32-year-old's poise, physicality and savvy this Sunday when facing Tom Brady and the New England Patriotsin Super Bowl LIII.

The Broncos got cap space to help them land former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum in free agency, with underwhelming results that included a 6-10 record and provoked a head-coaching change.

The Rams? They got a game-changer.

"He's an impact player," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr., Talib's former No Fly Zone compadre. "He's the ultimate competitor, and he thinks he's gonna win at everything. I guarantee you he's not going into this game thinking he's losing. He understands the game, and he knows what you've got to do to beat Brady -- and that's a huge advantage."

Talib, a ballhawk with 35 career interceptions -- 10 of them returned for a touchdown -- has already been a difference-maker for the NFC champions, spurring a star-studded Rams defense to a late-season revival and winning over teammates and coaches with his leadership skills.

"Aqib Talib has 100 percent exemplified what a captain is, from a professional, leadership standpoint," said Rams assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Barry. "On and off the field, he's been incredible, and I think we absolutely missed his presence those eight weeks he was out."

Talib suffered an ankle injury in Week 3, leaving in the third quarter of the Rams' 35-23 victory over the L.A. Chargers. Three days later, he was placed on the injured reserve list, and the following day, he underwent surgery to repair a damaged deltoid ligament. Suddenly, the Rams, who'd also traded for former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters over the offseason, had a major void in the secondary.

Peters proceeded to struggle against several No. 1 receivers, and the Rams became far more vulnerable on the back end -- a situation that was remedied once Talib came off IR and returned for the team's Dec. 2 victory over the Detroit Lions. In eight games without Talib, L.A. allowed an average of 30.8 points per game. In the 10 the Rams have played with him, including playoff victories over the Dallas Cowboysand New Orleans Saints, they've given up an average of 18.3.

Now Talib must face off against Brady -- a friend, former teammate and living legend -- and the potent Patriots. It's no easy task, but Talib, as Harris suggests, can provide a blueprint for success. In the 2015 AFC Championship Game, at the height of the No Fly Zone, Talib was a pivotal part of a star-studded Broncos defense that subdued the Pats by a 20-18 score.

Two weeks later, the Broncos' defense dominated league MVP Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, rolling to a Super Bowl 50 triumph.

The band began to break up a year later, when Broncos coach Gary Kubiak resigned following a 9-7 season, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips left for the same job with the Rams, who had just hired Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. In 2017, Denver struggled to a 5-11 record, cycling through three quarterbacks (Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch) and two offensive coordinators.

As the eldest of the Broncos' talented trio of cornerbacks -- a group that included Harris, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, and Bradley Roby -- Talib emerged as a logical salary-cap casualty. Initially, Broncos general manager John Elway worked out a deal that would have sent Talib to the San Francisco 49ers for a fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Talib balked, telling Elway he wouldn't take a physical with San Francisco, which would have been required to complete the deal. He then gave Elway a short list of teams to which he'd willingly accept a trade: the Dallas Cowboys, who train near his hometown and offseason residence; the Patriots, with whom he spent a season-and-a-half before signing with the Broncos in 2014; and the Rams, because of his familiarity with Phillips' system.

"I just know how the league works; I knew I couldn't just get sent anywhere," Talib said. "I knew I had to take a physical before the trade was official, anywhere I went. So I knew I had a little leeway. San Francisco ain't gonna pull the trigger if I don't take a physical."

Talib had no desire to join a 49ers team that was coming off a 6-10 campaign and clearly in rebuilding mode. Elway ended up sending him to the Rams for a 2018 fifth-round selection.

"At this point in my career, I don't want to be on a losing team," Talib said. "I just wanted to go somewhere where I was gonna be comfortable -- I already knew the defense, and they were a good team at the same time. I knew how stacked it was before I got here. I'd heard a lot about Sean (McVay); kinda knew of him already. I just wanted to be a part of something like that. Winning team, a defensive coordinator who I'm already familiar with, I wouldn't really have to learn anything ... it ended up being a perfect fit."

And after helping the Rams to their first conference title in 17 years, Talib now faces a perfect opponent: the Patriots, a franchise whose coach, Bill Belichick, he credits with teaching him to become a true professional after Belichick acquired him in a trade midway through the 2012 season.

As Talib told me three years ago, he was a "wild child" during his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who took the former Kansas star in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. After a long string of off-the-field issues, Talib was traded to the Patriots, and he got his act together in New England.

"I've come a long, long way," he said in early 2016. "I remember the days when I got to the league, after practice, I'd head straight out of the house, get back in at maybe 1 in the morning and set three alarms making sure I'd wake up and get to work. (Belichick) definitely took a chance on me, and I'm very thankful. It was just a long way from football player to professional football player."

This isn't to say the last few years have been completely drama-free. There was a memorable incident in 2016 where Talib allegedly shot himself in the leg. But he did not receive any punishment from authorities or the league. And Talib remains popular with his former Patriots teammates, including current New England safety Patrick Chung. When I asked Chung about Talib on Monday, he smiled and said, "He was a great teammate. He'll bring some energy, bro. He's funny. And he's smart -- people don't realize that. He knows football."

He also shared a lighthearted moment with Brady onstage at Super Bowl Opening Night, during which Talib described the quarterback as "The G.O.A.T."

Talib, according to witnesses, also displayed his biting sense of humor early in the season, during a meeting at the team hotel the night before a game. Lightly used rookie linebacker Trevon Young, who would be active for only two games in 2018, ventured into the section in the back of the ballroom where the defensive backs typically gather and reached for an empty chair. Talib snapped: "Hey -- you ain't taking that. Not unless it's for 'AD.' " The reference to star defensive tackle Aaron Donald provoked loud laughter throughout the room, and Young walked away without taking the chair.

Another of the Rams' most respected players, 37-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth, said he has been blown away by Talib's influence in the locker room.

"When you watch him in a room, and watch the respect they have for him, you can tell he's just different," Whitworth said. "I've said the same thing about 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."

With the dissolution of the No Fly Zone -- "Oh yeah, definitely, it's over," Harris said -- they're feeling a void in Denver, as well.

"When he went there and got back with Wade, I knew they were gonna do damage," Harris said. "And they have a great chance on Sunday. He's great at galvanizing the guys. They're gonna feel his energy."

It won't be subtle.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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