EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. —** A little less than two years ago, Aqib Talib cut through the Indianapolis Colts' offense like the calm, early-evening breeze in the Massachusetts air with the temperature hovering a little bit above freezing.
He had just plucked a pass intended for Reggie Wayne out of its flight path and was headed in the other direction, turning his defensive teammates into blockers and turning his offensive opponents into wannabe tacklers. Catching the ball on the Colts' right hash, he crossed the field toward the opposite sideline, quickly sprinted upfield, cut back to the middle to gain blockers and then made his way for the left pylon.
It was his first interception for the Patriots and he turned it into a 59-yard touchdown.
His first interception for the Broncos had an identical end result, though the rest was completely different.
As a Patriot, Talib caught a badly overthrown pass.
As a Bronco, Talib caught one that was underthrown. Still, he turned that one into a touchdown, too.
The Jets were down seven points with 56 seconds left in regulation. They needed a touchdown, but the Broncos had pinned them at their own 5-yard line on a punt. With 95 yards ahead of them, quarterback Geno Smith had his work cut out for him, and they hadn't had much success on offense up to that point. Smith had completed 22-of-41 passes to that point for 183 yards and had been sacked four times, though to his credit he did have two passing touchdowns, including the one to pull within seven points earlier in the fourth quarter.
Denver's defense had forced New York to turn almost solely to their passing game after holding their rushing offense to 31 yards on 15 runs.
So Smith dropped back for his 42nd pass of the day. The Broncos dropped back in a cover-two defense. The Jets ran vertical routes, looking to gain yards in a hurry. Talib kept his eyes on Smith, who threw the ball behind receiver Jeremy Kerley. Catching the low ball before it scraped the turf, Talib didn't have to make any cutbacks back and forth across the turf this time. The 22-yard return began and ended quickly and directly, with Talib picking up a couple blocks before he high-stepped into the end zone.
The play effectively ended the game, putting the Jets' deficit into two-score territory. After the game, Smith said "It wasn't a good enough ball," while Head Coach Rex Ryan said "We were trying to make a play and force the issue. It got out of his hand a little too quick."
"It felt good, man—first pick of the season. As a defense, we got a chance to end the game again. [I] feel real good for the defense," Talib said.
For teammate T.J. Ward, it was hardly a surprise to see Talib come up big late in a game. "Just when it's time to make a play, he seems to always be there. He seems to always be knocking the ball down. If he's not intercepting, he's got his hands on it, making tackles, assignment keys, crucial situations," Ward said. "I say Talib is a clutch corner for us."
Not only had Talib and the secondary come up big with time winding down, but they had been a key part to holding the Jets to 204 total yards. Though New York had a couple promising drives, they were often taken out of rhythm by Denver's pass rush, which had four sacks and nine hits on the quarterback. Though the Broncos' defensive linemen and pass rushers are talented enough in their own right, they got a lot of help in getting time to get to Smith from the coverage containing the Jets' receivers.
The secondary's competitiveness is something that drives them, and for those who know Talib, they know he's as competitive as they come, and that just helps fuel the entire secondary.
"It doesn't matter if we're playing ping pong, he wants to win," Chris Harris Jr. said. "That's the type of guys we need on this team to get us over the top."
"We're all eager to make plays," Ward said. "So when we're out there, we're like, 'Who's going to be the first one to make a play? Who's going to be the first one to get a pick this game? Who's the first one to get a big hit?'"
Check out the best shots from Sunday's game against the Jets.
"It's a team full of competitive guys," Talib said. "We thrive on that stuff. I feel like that's why Jack [Del Rio] brought me, D. Ware and T.J. here because of our competitive nature. We're just a competitive defense as a whole. That's what we do. If we're called on to end the game, then we're going to try to end the game."
It had to be much-anticipated for Talib, who would have had his first interception as a Bronco on a pick six a month ago against Kansas City, but it was called back for an offsides penalty. He was also close on a interception against the Seahawks, but wide receiver Ricardo Lockette wisely interfered with Talib, taking a penalty to prevent the turnover.
"You know, we've been talking about that a long time," Von Miller said. "It was great when you still got working and working and working and finally has a breakthrough with success. It's a wonderful feeling and I'm happy for Talib, happy for all the guys that were able to go out there and get this win done."