Raheem Morris says that Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib was playing at a Pro Bowl level before his season-ending hip injury, and that in fact his 11-game body of work probably already warrants an all-star selection.
As such, Talib should be difficult for the Buccaneers' defense to replace over the final four games of the regular season, and whatever may lie beyond in January. After all, Pro Bowl cornerbacks aren't easy to find.
The last thing that Morris and his staff are going to do, however, as they prepare for a playoff stretch run without one of their best defenders (not to mention recently-shelved starters Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph, Cody Grimm and Kyle Moore), is admit defeat. Not only do the Buccaneers need the next man on the depth chart to step up once again, they steadfastly believe he will. It's really the only way they can approach it.
"When you put those DB [defensive back] guys out there, you've got to display confidence [in them]," said Morris. "I don't want any of those guys playing scared ever, or playing tentative. That's how you get in trouble.
"Again, no time to bleed. Next man up. It's no different than what we've been doing on the offensive line, no different than what we've been doing in the secondary besides Talib. So here we go. Another challenge for another young man."
Morris said he has seen the results of tentative play from first-time starters in the recent past, citing unfortunate debut moments for Tanard Jackson, Grimm and even Talib himself. All of those players went on to play extremely well, often in the very same game. E.J. Biggers, who now steps in to replace Talib at left cornerback, was already thrown to the fire last Sunday against Atlanta, as was rookie Myron Lewis, who slid into Biggers' nickel back role.
The Buccaneers had 10-plus games with Biggers as the nickel back (plus an opening-day start when Talib wasn't available) to become comfortable with the second-year player. He performed well for the roughly three-quarters of a game that Talib missed, helping to keep Pro Bowl-bound Roddy White mostly in check. Biggers wasn't completely satisfied with his performance, but his confidence wasn't shaken.
"There were some plays I left out there that I should have made that probably would have made a difference in the game," he said. "I've just got to learn from it and get better.
"Like I tell everybody, we have two of the best corners in the league. A guy like that, losing him, that's a lot that you're losing. I watch him and Ronde every week and I'm just trying to be the next best thing coming up. Those guys teach me all the technique I need to know. I've just got to go in there and step up – that's the nature of the beast around here."
With Biggers settled in as the nickel back all season, Lewis' playing time on defense has been scattered. The Falcons contest probably constituted his most extensive playing time yet, and it was definitely trial by fire.
"Myron Lewis became the nickel in this game, and he went out there and had a couple plays he made and a couple he missed," said Morris. "He'd like a couple of those back. But that stuff comes with time and experience. That's with all our guys. He had an opportunity on a third-down play he didn't make. That stuff just happens with corners. You've got to go out there as a confident secondary player and be ready to step up to your next challenge. That's what he's doing this week."
Time and again the Buccaneers have turned to young and inexperienced reserves this year in order to overcome injuries or other player absences, and time and again they have been rewarded for their confidence. Grimm, a seventh-round pick in April, was outstanding in place of Jackson. Ted Larsen, a rookie and a September waiver claim, has been a revelation at left guard. James Lee, of undrafted free agent origins, stepped in at right tackle and refused to give the job back. Dekoda Watson and Adam Hayward, former seventh and sixth-round picks respectively, got the Bucs through a two-week loss of Quincy Black. And so on.
Now Biggers and Lewis are the next men up. Morris expects nothing but their best.
Blount Focuses on Short-Yardage Situations
With four minutes left in the third quarter of their game against Atlanta last Sunday, the Buccaneers faced a third-and-one at the Falcons' 41-yard line, leading by three points. LeGarrette Blount, who had just blasted for nine yards on second-and-10, was given the ball again on third down to try to move the chains, but he was stopped for no gain by Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters.
Morris elected to punt rather than risk a fourth-and-one try near midfield. As it turned out, the punt was downed at the three-yard line, the Tampa Bay defense forced a punt in return and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 37 and promptly drove for the touchdown that put them up 24-14.
In that way, one can conclude that the strategy worked and the decision to punt was sound. Still, it was a difficult decision, and one the team wouldn't have had to make if it could have converted that third-down play.
Overall, the Buccaneers have been better in short-yardage situations in 2010 than a year ago. Their conversion rate on third down and one to three yards is 62.8%, up from 53.1% in 2009. Against Atlanta, they converted a third-and-two in the first quarter and a third-and-one in the second period, albeit with more fanciful play-calling both times (the first was an option pitch from Josh Johnson to Sammie Stroughter and the second was an end-around by Arrelious Benn). But the short-yardage plays that don't work are always more memorable, and that third-quarter attempt plus a key fourth-and-one run in the first meeting with Atlanta have drawn a lot of attention. On Monday, Morris said he would reevaluate the team's strategies in those situations and potentially get fullback Earnest Graham more involved in the ballcarrying.
Blount is fine with sharing the third-and-one responsibilities with Graham, Cadillac Williams or anyone else on offense. However, he also wants to be part of the solution, and he believes Morris still has confidence in him in those situations.
"As a running back, I do always look for the big play," he said. "At the same time, I know when I need to get one yard I have to get that one yard. It's just sometimes it doesn't work out that way. [Morris] supports me in everything I do and how I run. I talk to him a lot during the week, and he wants me to succeed. I guess he just wants me to have a different mentality when it comes down to short-yardage situations."
That said, Blount said it isn't all about mentality. Given how little subterfuge there is on most short-yardage plays, it often just comes down to physically beating your opponent. Blount is finding that more difficult to do in the NFL than it was on the college level, when he had a size advantage on a lot of his would-be tacklers, but he still thinks he's got the right attributes for he job.
"Defenses, when you're in a short-yardage situation, they're not dumb," he said. "They're smart. They know exactly what you're going to do. You're either going to quarterback-sneak or you're going to run the ball. The first thing they do, as soon as you hike the ball you have all four defensive linemen crashing inside, all the linebackers running full-speed and one or two linebackers going over the top to make sure you don't go over the top. It's not you one-on-one with a linebacker in the hole; it's you, like, one-on-three with a linebacker and two D-linemen. I've just got to put my head down and, at 250 pounds, go out there and get the yardage."
Most short-yardage battles are decided very quickly. Sometimes there is so much defensive penetration that the back can never get properly into the play. Sometimes the offense gets enough of a push to make it easy for the ballcarrier. But when the outcome is in doubt, Blount knows he has to attack the defense as swiftly as possible.
"I'm going to try to concentrate more on our short-yardage situations," he said. "I know everybody wants me to improve in that area. I'm going to try to improve on that area as much as possible and do everything I can do to get downhill on third-and-short, fourth-and-short, whatever."
CB Johnson Promoted from Practice Squad
The Buccaneers found a man for their remaining open roster spot on Wednesday, and not surprisingly it was a player right in their own building. Also not surprisingly, it was a cornerback, given that the spot was opened when starting cornerback Aqib Talib was placed on injured reserve on Monday.
That player is second-year corner D.J. Johnson, who has been on the Buccaneers' practice squad the past two weeks. Tampa Bay signed Johnson to that crew on November 24 after he had spent much of the season on the New York Giants' active roster. Before his release by the Giants, Johnson had played in seven games and contributed four tackles.
Johnson first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Denver Broncos in 2009. He started his rookie season on the Broncos' practice squad but was eventually signed off that unit to the Giants' active roster in November. In two years at Jackson State, Johnson played in 24 games and totaled 66 tackles and 10 interceptions.
Johnson is already the eighth player this season to be signed to the Bucs' active roster after spending some time on the team's practice squad. That's good news for fullback Rendrick Taylor, who was re-signed on Wednesday to take Johnson's spot on the practice squad.
Taylor first caught the Buccaneers' eye when he participated in their post-draft rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract in May. Taylor was one of a handful of prospects intriguing enough in that camp to earn a spot on the 80-man offseason roster, and he remained with the team through training camp before being waived in the final roster cutdown on September 4.
At 6-2 and a very solid 265 pounds, Taylor looks like a fullback but actually played wide receiver during his first three years at Clemson. He caught 46 passes for 480 yards and one touchdown during those three seasons but was asked to convert to fullback in 2009 after missing the 2008 season due to injury. In his new role he ran 13 times for 37 yards and caught eight passes for 53 yards but most importantly served as a lead-blocker for C.J. Spiller, who rushed for 1,271 yards. Spiller was eventually drafted ninth overall by the Buffalo Bills.