Two weeks ago, Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib played so well in Green Bay that both Head Coach Raheem Morris and Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake mused that it might have been his best game as a pro. Just one week later, Talib intercepted a pass in Tennessee and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 17-10 lead in the second half. He was, by all accounts, superb in that game, as well.
Obviously, Talib is locked in for the stretch drive. However, Lake doesn't necessarily agree that his fourth-year cornerback has turned his game up a notch in the second half of the season. According to his position coach, Talib has been performing at that same high level all season.
"I think he's had a great year," said Lake. "Even before [the last two games], teams weren't throwing his way. The media didn't talk about him. We go to play New Orleans in the dome there and Drew Brees barely even looked his way. The one time he did look his way, he knocked the pass down."
Talib, who averaged five picks over his first three seasons in the NFL, has just two this season, both returned for touchdowns. Lake would argue that, as often happens when a corner is demonstrably locked in, opposing quarterbacks give him very few opportunities to create turnovers. Exhibit A: Nnamdi Asomugha and his six total picks over the last five years.
But Talib has helped the Bucs' secondary on his best days even without touching the football, as when he held Pro Bowler Greg Jennings to two catches for six yards at Lambeau Field. On occasion, as in that game, the Bucs' defensive schemers choose to assign Talib to the opponent's best receiver for most of the game. They may do exactly that this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium when the Panthers and Steve Smith come to town.
"That's the nature of the NFL: It's every week," said Lake. "Every team has great players; it's amazing. And Steve Smith is a top, top, top guy. He's a monster."
Last year, the then-31-year-old Smith had his least monstrous season in about a decade (excluding a 2004 campaign in which he hit injured reserve after one game), catching just 46 passes for 554 yards and two touchdowns. However, with Cam Newton bringing new life to the Panthers' quarterback position, Smith is again among the league's most dangerous receivers, already nearly doubling his yardage total from all of last year. With 1,060 yards (on 59 catches), Smith ranks second in the NFL only to the amazingly prolific Wes Welker in New England. On Thursday, Morris said he considered the Panther veteran to be the top wideout in the league.
The Bucs obviously aren't going to reveal exactly how they plan to defend Smith, but it's a good bet that Talib will be on the job quite frequently. How that head-to-head affair plays out could go a long way towards determining the overall victor on Sunday.
"It will be a great matchup, a premium matchup, the kind that Talib was brought here for obviously, the one those two guys live for," said Morris. "They dream about it, they want to play against big-time opponents, and there's no bigger opponent than Steve Smith, especially in Aqib's category – a guy in the division, a guy he loves to play against and a guy he has an opportunity to prove himself against every time."
Progress, but No Decision
Josh Freeman's return from a shoulder injury took another step forward on Friday. Whether or not it was a big enough step to keep him on the path to playing against the Panthers is not yet clear.
Freeman has thrown the ball only sparingly this week after suffering a right shoulder injury on the Buccaneers' final offensive play Sunday in Tennessee. He tried out the shoulder with some tosses during walk-through on Thursday morning, then graduated to throwing in the pat-n-go warm-up session on Friday afternoon. If he does even more on Saturday, he might be able to keep his 36-game starts streak alive on Sunday.
The decision won't be made until game day.
"A little progress, obviously," said Morris of Freeman's work on Friday. "He threw the ball. The first couple days he didn't throw it as much. He threw a little bit yesterday and a little bit more today. We've got a chance to see him throw a little bit Saturday, and a chance on Sunday.
"Obviously he'll be a game-time decision and we'll take it right up to the last moment of truth."
Morris said Freeman is one of many young quarterbacks who want to pattern their game after the toughness that Brett Favre showed for so many years in Green Bay. Thus, the third-year passer might be motivated to push through whatever pain and soreness he is feeling on game day. That's why the decision will ultimately be based on the information Morris gets from his medical staff.
"Obviously you don't want to do anything that's going to hurt him," said the coach. "We've got very capable doctors, we've got very capable staff and they'll let me know and inform me if he can do any further damage. They've been doing a great job with him. It's one of those decisions you've got to make as a head coach. It's the eyeball test, talking with Todd [Toriscelli] the trainer, going over it with our doctors, evaluating what he can do and what he can't do, and then letting it rip."
If Freeman can't play on Sunday, fourth-year veteran Josh Johnson will get the start. Morris said that Johnson's week of practice was a direct reflection of how hard the young player has worked even when he had no expectation of playing on Sunday.
"Josh Johnson had a really spectacular week of practice. We talked about the kid being very motivated, we talked about the guy going out there and really being prepared. When you have a week like this and he takes all the reps, you really can see how prepared he is and how much he really wants it. Those types of things are all helpful for me."
Additional Injury Updates
All eyes seem to be on Freeman this week, but the Bucs have also been closely monitoring the progress of several other injured players. In at least one instance, the team got a favorable piece of news on Friday.
Defensive tackle Brian Price, who injured his right ankle in Tennessee and began the week wearing a walking boot, returned to practice on Friday, albeit in a limited fashion. The second-year player looked good enough on the practice field that Morris finished the week believing there was a good chance he would be able to play against the Panthers, something that didn't seem likely several days ago.
"Price did a nice job, went out there today and was limited for us," said Morris. "He did some good things so we're looking forward to getting him back in the lineup. It was nice to get him out there during practice. I feel like he's going to be ready to go, ready to deal."
On the other hand, starting left end Michael Bennett did not practice Friday, finishing off a week in which he mostly received treatment and ran on the field adjacent to practice. Morris said that Bennett, who has been dealing with a groin injury for more than a month, was pushing for clearance to play this week but in the end he wasn't deemed ready. He will not play on Sunday, though Morris is still pleased with his progress this week.
"Michael Bennett was not out today," said Morris. "He more than likely won't be able to go this week, but he did make some progress, some growth and development with where he is going. For him [even] to be a question mark, I was pretty excited."
The Bucs' Friday injury report included game-status designations for the first time, and other than Bennett, only two of the remaining players on the list are considered questionable for Sunday's game headed into the weekend: Freeman and Price. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn (back), defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee), linebacker Adam Hayward (foot), safety Tanard Jackson (hamstring) and linebacker Dekoda Watson (groin) are all probable.
The Panthers' injury report is only three players deep but one of those three, reserve linebacker Jason Phillips, has already been ruled out for the game. Linebacker Omar Gaither (knee) and wide receiver Kealoha Pilares (quad) are both questionable, though Gaither returned to full participation in practice on Friday.