TAMPA — In a six-month span with his new team, Aqib Talib somehow transformed himself from embattled cornerback to credible character witness.
Without Talib’s recommendation, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick might never have signed off on a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 27-year-old running back LeGarrette Blount, whose startling production in recent weeks has emerged as a major story line for Sunday’s AFC championship game at Denver.
With Blount relegated to the bench behind rookie sensation Doug Martin in 2012, Tampa Bay traded him to New England last April for running back Jeff Demps and a seventh-round draft choice.
According to Belichick, a conversation with Talib was the key, providing the Patriots with a comfort level regarding Blount, whose dependability was questioned by Bucs coaches after he led all rookie backs with 1,007 rushing yards in 2010.
“I think, definitely, an assist on this one has to go to our ‘assistant pro personnel director’ — Talib — who I talked to before we traded for LeGarrette,” Belichick quipped. “One of the things that was very influential to me was Aqib’s evaluation of LeGarrette as a person, as a teammate, as a competitive football player and his skill set,
“When you have a guy who is with another player day after day, year after year, competing against him on the field and he gives you an honest evaluation and you trust that player and his evaluation, who knows better than him?”
Talib had proven himself to Belichick after arriving from Tampa in a trade on Nov. 1, 2012, and playing well the rest of the season. Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2008, Talib was dealt to the Pats just as he was finishing up a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
After remaining in the shadows with New England, Blount has vaulted into national prominence following last week’s dazzling effort in a 43-22 playoff victory against Indianapolis.
He is featured on one of the regional Sports Illustrated covers this week, caught in mid-stride as he completes a 73-yard run against the Colts, one of his four touchdowns in a 166-yard rushing performance.
And yes, Tampa Bay fans, ex-Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett is on another Sports Illustrated regional cover, sacking Drew Brees during Seattle’s 23-15 triumph against the Saints.
“There’s nothing better than seeing that big guy out in the open field,’’ New England Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins said after Blount ravaged the Colts. “Man, he grabs another gear from somewhere and he starts moving and you know none of those safeties and corners want to tackle him.’’
Blount is running with a lower pad level while raising his profile.
With New England’s offensive line dominating the Colts up front, Blount repeatedly reached the second level and displayed his rare blend of power and speed.
“I’ve seen a couple of holes that I could have hit, seen a couple of cuts I could have made,’’ said Blount, who has rushed for 431 yards and scored eight touchdowns in his past three games. “I’m just going to go out there and look at what they’re going to give me and hopefully exploit some of (the Broncos’) weaknesses. I’ve just been working my butt off since I got here to get the opportunity that I have.’’
Blount was used sparingly earlier this season, making most of his contributions as a 250-pound kickoff returner while quarterback Tom Brady remained the focal point of the offense.
But when Steven Ridley’s fumbling issues prompted Belichick to give Blount an expanded role in the backfield, New England’s ground game swelled into a dynamic force.
“LeGarrette has given us good football all year long, he really has,’’ Belichick said. “Certainly he’s had some outstanding games recently, but he’s been a solid player for us all the way through. I think everybody has a lot of confidence in him. He has a great skill set — good vision, good size, good quickness, good speed and he’s a hard guy to tackle.’’
With most of the pregame analysis centered on Sunday’s historic duel between quarterbacks Brady and Peyton Manning, Denver’s defense is gearing up for Blount’s arrival.
“He has a lot of speed for a guy his size and people underestimate that,’’ said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “They think he’s a bruiser, but when he gets in the open field, he can make the defensive backs miss and run away from them. We’ll just have to gang tackle.’’
If Blount, Talib and Bennett hit the free-agent market in March, there figures to be considerable interest in all three former Buccaneers throughout the league as Tampa Bay moves on from the Greg Schiano era.
And if another NFL coach asks Talib about Blount, he’s ready to intercept the question.
“You call it overnight success, but I’ve seen him in his first year in Tampa have 1,000 yards, and the next year have close to 1,000 yards (781), and then go to no carries when Schiano got there,’’ Talib said. “So, I’ve seen his success, man. I’ve seen what he can do, so it doesn’t surprise me.”