FOXBORO -- Every week that Aqib Talib has been healthy enough to play, the Patriots seemed to have him defend the opposition's most talented receiver. Big guys, small guys, fast guys, really fast guys -- he covered them all.
That strategy appeared to shift somewhat last week. Instead of having Talib cover Miami's best receiver, he spent the majority of his day following tight end Charles Clay while Patriots corner Kyle Arrington pulled the responsibility of checking Mike Wallace.
(Talib has manned up on tight ends before: He shut out Jimmy Graham in Week 6 before injuring his hip. But the Patriots explained at the time that Graham was essentially a "tight end" in title only. For all intents and purposes, he was a big receiver.)
So why was Talib lined up on Clay so often on Sunday? It could have been any number of reasons. The Patriots could have deemed the versatile Clay as Miami's most dangerous offensive weapon and chosen to use their top coverage guy to limit him.
But if Talib's nagging hip injury slowed him to the point that he would have been ineffective against Wallace -- one of the fastest receivers in the league -- putting Talib on Clay might have been the best strategy available to coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
Talib wouldn't say just how hampered he has been by his hip, though he did admit on Thursday that he was not playing at 100 percent.
"I feel like it's Week 16," he said. "I feel like everybody else. Week 16. I'm sure ain't nobody in the NFL 100 percent. It's football, man. This ain't my first rodeo."
Since suffering the injury in Week 6 and missing the next two weeks, Talib hasn't been quite the same player who had strong performances against Vincent Jackson of the Bucs, Julio Jones of the Falcons and Graham early in the season.
Talib was beaten by Panthers receiver Steve Smith for big gains in a Patriots loss; he was rarely tested against the Broncos when Denver opted to run for much of the game against the Patriots; he allowed Andre Johnson to make 8 catches for 121 yards in Week 13; and in Week 14 Talib had his worst game of the season, allowing Cleveland's Josh Gordon seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown.
Was the Browns game a signal that it was time for Talib to be utilized in ways other than in man-to-man coverage on the opposition's No. 1 wideout? If so, Talib's size and strength still make him a good matchup for bigger receivers and tight ends.
With tight end Dennis Pitta back in the lineup, the Ravens present a dangerous option who Talib would likely have the ability to check in coverage if he's not used to defend receivers Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown or Jacoby Jones.
"He key for them, man," Talib said of Pitta. "They go to him a lot over the middle in those third-down situations. That's one of [Joe Flacco's] go-to guys. He's definitely key for them."
Talib also had high praise for Smith, Baltimore's No. 1 receiver. He has 59 catches on 122 targets for 1,032 yards and seems to most closely resemble the kind of outside receivers Talib was locked on in the season's early going.
The Ravens' next most productive target has been Brown, who has 40 catches on 66 targets for 443 yards.
On Thursday, Talib was asked just how fast Smith really was.
"You know that," Talib cracked. "I don't even want to talk about that. You know how fast he is. We all know how fast he is. He's definitely one of [the fastest in the league]. He's up there. Put him right up there with the Wallaces and the Calvin Johnsons. They burners, man."
Whether or not that means he's Talib's for the taking won't be known until Sunday afternoon.