Back and Forth with Nicks and Talib
A huge day for one of the league's top receivers and the man responsible for covering him still nets a positive coverage grade? Ben Stockwell looks closer at the Nicks-Talib ...
Back and Forth with Nicks and Talib
This past Sunday in New York we got to see what could be classified as a recent classic and the best game of this young season. The Giants and the Buccaneers went round and round in a game that was brimming with drama and big plays until the very end.
Within that game there was a matchup of corner and wide receiver that, if you simply look at the base stats, appears to be a complete walkover. Hakeem Nicks beat Aqib Talib to the tune of 168 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions, averaging 21 yards per completion. In spite of this, Talib earned a coverage grade of +1.0 for his display.
On the surface, that may be difficult to comprehend, but it paints the real picture of a matchup that was back and forth throughout, with both players getting the upper hand at various points.
For the second time in as many weeks, Marquee Matchups features a battle between a corner and receiver from MetLife Stadium. This time we look at the big plays that Nicks made to pass a stern test from the coverage of Aqib Talib and help the Giants escape with a bounce-back victory.
Q1 14:54 – 1st-and-10 – 8-yard Completion
From the very first snap of the game, this was the featured one-on-one matchup. With Nicks aligned to the left and Talib in press coverage, Eli Manning targeted Nicks on a quick slant. Courtesy of a run fake going to the right, the Bucs’ linebackers were held and Nicks was able to get inside of Talib, making the catch through close coverage to pick up a game-opening 8-yard gain. In what was a continuing theme throughout, Talib was right with him, but was simply beaten by positioning and strength.
Q1 14:22 – 2nd-and-2 – 40-yard Completion
The Giants wasted no time in going back to the well and took their first deep shot at Talib who was aligned off the line of scrimmage to the right side and not up to disrupt the release. On this play Talib was pre-occupied looking into the backfield and lost track, to an extent, of Nicks running upfield. He was still in stride, but was in poor position and, as Manning put the ball up, the Giants’ No. 1 receiver was able to work back underneath to elevate for the completion. Talib’s poor position was then compounded as Nicks landed cleanly and added 15 yards after the catch before Talib eventually brought him down. Nicks was off to a fast start without Talib making a big mistake.
Q1 12:54 – 3rd-and-7 – Incomplete Pass
After two victories for the Bucs’ defense to set up a 3rd-and-7 off of the back of that long completion, Talib logged his first positive play as he denied a touchdown and forced a field goal with strong coverage on a deep route. This time Talib was able to press and redirected Nicks to the right sideline, not leaving space for Manning to fit the pass in. Not simply settling for good position, Talib turned, located the football, and got up to knock the pass away at the goal line and bring up fourth down. Talib was left isolated on this play but handled his responsibility with Nicks extremely well.
Q1 06:43 – 2nd-and-6 – Incomplete Pass
For the second target in a row, the Giants looked for Nicks to get an outside release and push upfield on Talib. And, for the second target in a row, the Bucs’ corner did an excellent job of preventing a clean get-off and of taking away any space for a pass to find Nicks. Though Nicks attempted to shake Talib at the line, he didn’t bite on the inside fake and quickly turned to box Nicks in to the right sideline. Staying on top of the route this time, Talib took away the target area and prevented any chance of a completion. The Giants were unhappy that no flag was called on this play due to contact downfield, but realistically, Talib prevented this completion with his work at the line of scrimmage.
Q2 12:48 – 1st-and-10 – Incomplete Pass
After the first drive Talib settled in to his strongest stretch of the game. This time he got the better of the slant route that beat him at the outset. There was again a run action to the far side of the play leaving Talib isolated against Nicks, but this time he worked immediately for inside position and jumped the route to break up the pass. The three straight incompletions that Talib forced on these targets were a big part of what helped the Bucs build the first-half momentum that resulted in an 11-point lead.
Q2 12:01 – 3rd-and-7 – 5-yard Completion
Two plays later the Giants were in another 3rd-and-7 situation and once again Talib took Nicks one-on-one wide to the left. The Bucs’ top corner pressed and delayed Nicks’ release, but the Giant managed to gain position and snag a high throw up the left numbers. As ever in this game, Talib had close coverage and didn’t allow Nicks to work upfield after the catch. Twisting him down quickly, Talib kept Nicks from extending the football for the first down, bringing up a punt for the Giants and forcing them off the field.
Q2 01:59 – 1st-and-10 – 23-yard Touchdown
After the Bucs established that 11-point lead, this play was a forewarning of things to come in the second half. Again Talib was up on Nicks at the line of scrimmage, but this time he was beaten to the inside, and convincingly so, as he failed to lay a hand on the Giants’ receiver or stay with him upfield. Nicks’ excellent shimmy at the line got him a full stride on Talib and he maintained that gap through the completion, reaching the end zone before rookie safety Mark Barron could get across to make a tackle.
Q2 00:53 – 1st-and-10 – 17-yard Completion
After the Bucs went three-and-out to follow that Nicks touchdown, this play raised the question as to whether the Giants would drive the field and take a second half lead to completely deflate the upstart Buccaneers. Up on the line of scrimmage again, Talib was beaten to the inside for the second play in a row. Nicks maintained that inside ground on Talib, breaking on a slant route to pick up a first down and 17 yards. As it transpired, Manning did throw a touchdown pass on this drive, but it was to Eric Wright rather than a Giants receiver and the Bucs snared momentum back going into halftime.
Q3 13:04 – 1st-and-10 – 11-yard Completion
On a rare occasion that Talib allowed a free release and instead tried to run with Nicks, he was beaten to open the second half. Clearly concerned with taking away the deep ball from this outside release, Talib allowed an easy completion underneath as the Giants got underway with a first down. Nicks didn’t close ground to Talib, but instead maintained the cushion Talib gave him and simply stopped on a back shoulder throw to the sideline. Talib closed on the catch quickly, but couldn’t prevent the conversion.
Q3 05:15 & 03:07 – Penalties by Talib
Talib didn’t allow another completion to Nicks in the remainder of the third quarter, but what did follow were a pair of coverage penalties that, if considered as part of his coverage grade, take it below 0.0 for the game. The first, a defensive holding penalty, was unnecessary as he was well stationed from the jam on a 2nd-and-10 play and simply didn’t need to hold Nicks as Manning targeted a Victor Cruz wheel route from the slot. The second, a pass interference call, also came off of the back of decent work at the line of scrimmage, but once again he was found wanting on a back-shoulder stop from Manning to Nicks. Talib didn’t make much contact, but the grasp of the facemask as he reached out to stay close was enough to draw the flag.
Q4 13:54 – 3rd-and-11 – 14-yard Completion
Again Talib gave up the inside far too easily and gifted Manning and Nicks an easy conversion on 3rd-and-long. Talib immediately opened up to run with Nicks, but slipped as he took off upfield. The Giants QB-WR duo took what was given and collected the first down to set up a 1st-and-goal which resulted in three points.
Q4 07:08 – 2nd-and-2 – Incomplete Pass
This was a rare strong play by Talib in the second half, though once again it began with Nicks earning the inside on a slant. Talib, however, stayed on the shoulder and, as the ball arrived, he didn’t allow Nicks to secure it. Talib had a hand in all the way and kept fighting to the ground to eventually rip the ball free and remove any doubt as to whether the pass was complete or not.
Q4 05:43 – 1st-and-10 – Incomplete Pass
This is the first target in the second half on which Talib actively took away the inside release, but as with the first half, the Giants still went after him to the outside. Thanks to Nicks’ alignment tight to the numbers, Talib couldn’t use the sideline as an extra defender so space remained to the outside for Manning to target. Showing excellent coverage on this route again, Talib kept in stride tight to Nicks’ left hip and didn’t allow room to locate and snag the football. While he certainly got away with a sneaky grab of Nicks’ jersey, this was excellent close coverage as he took away this deep route off of an outside release. As consistently as the Giants challenged him with this route, Talib was up to the task of defending it.
Q4 01:28 – 1st-and-15 – 50-yard Completion
… that is until this play where the Giants finally got the payoff from this route that they had been looking for all game long. Despite Nicks limping a little with an ankle injury picked up on the previous incompletion, the Giants’ receiver was, for the first time, able to get on top of Talib on this route. Nicks got half a step out front this time which meant that, as the corner leaned in, the receiver was able to separate and leave the coverage behind. To compound matters, Talib lost his balance off that lean, not getting as much of Nicks as he was hoping, and couldn’t recover to make the tackle. This allowed Nicks to collect 29 yards after the catch and set up the Giants’ game-winning touchdown.
Hakeem Nicks It
The stats from this matchup are a product of the routes involved and do Talib no favors for a performance that was extremely solid. He was beaten deep, but only on one occasion was he completely beaten on his coverage, and the Giants were looking for that play all day. For much of the time it was a nip-and-tuck battle that in the end Nicks got the better of — courtesy of that final completion when he finally shed Talib’s coverage completely and made the decisive play in the game. Nicks is one of the league’s best receivers at the moment and without Talib’s outstanding work in coverage on the Giants’ persistent attempts to get deep, New York would have won this game sooner and Manning might have broken the NFL single-game passing record.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.