FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For a guy who loves to talk on the field, New England's Aqib Talib sure has been quiet lately.
The Patriots cornerback injured his hip in the Patriots' win against New Orleans on Oct. 13 and missed the next three games. He hadn't spoken after practice until Thursday, when he said he's eager to return to the field Monday night for New England's game against the Carolina Panthers.
"I'm practicing good," Talib said, with a wide grin. "Day to day. Trying to get back."
Fresh off the Patriots' bye last week, Talib was a limited participant in Thursday's practice. That's the same designation he's had for a while, and he said watching his teammates play without him was "the worst thing in the world."
Coach Bill Belichick was more candid than usual when asked about the player who leads the team with four interceptions and who's been solely responsible for shutting down some of the league's elite pass catchers.
"He's continued to progress. We'll keep doing, as they can tolerate it, do more and evaluate how they do at a little bit higher level," Belichick said. "Then if that goes well, then ramp it up and see where we are as we go through the week."
New England's secondary withstood the absence of its top playmaker, going 2-1 during the stretch. The Patriots (7-2) could benefit from his return against the Panthers (6-3), who have won five straight games and scored 30 or more points in five of their past seven.
"Unbelievable player, happy to have him on the field with us," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "I think the guys that stepped in when he was gone, they did a great job, but having him back is just going to help us as far as have more depth and keep guys rolling."
Should Talib return for New England's only Monday night game this season, he likely will be matched up with one of the most successful receivers of the past decade in Steve Smith.
Talib, who spent his first four-plus seasons playing in the NFC South with Tampa Bay, is familiar with the flashy veteran.
"He brings it every Sunday or Monday or whenever the game is," Talib said. "I think if you're competitive like that, you're going to be pretty successful."
Smith has tallied more than 800 receptions and 11,000 yards in his career, and has a team-high 42 catches for 450 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Talib knows exactly what to expect from Smith -- his best effort and a lot of chatter.
"You've got a lot of guys who do a lot of talking to (the media), and we get out there and they don't say too much on the field," Talib said. "But Steve is definitely one of those guys, he's going to do it on the field."
Not unlike Talib.
"Yeah," he said with a smile, "I say a couple words."
Shadowing the opposition's top threat is becoming commonplace for Talib.
Julio Jones was near the top of the league in every major category when Talib held him to a season-low six catches. He caught just three of his first 10 for 22 yards.
The following week, Talib's talents helped limit Cincinnati's A.J. Green to five catches for 61 yards. Green now leads the league in yards and ranks second in receptions.
And still to come was his premier performance, spearheading an effort to shut down New Orleans' tight end Jimmy Graham, who tops all receivers with 10 touchdowns but was held without a catch against New England for the first time in a span of 46 games.
Belichick went so far as to compare Talib to former Patriots' cornerback Ty Law.
"Maybe Ty would be similar in that he was a good corner and you could put him on a lot of players and not maybe feel like you need to give him a lot of help," he said. "I think Talib is a guy that we have a lot of confidence in and probably would treat his matchups a little bit differently than we've treated some other ones in the past."