Rookie CB Aqib Talib broke up this fade pass in the end zone
Football, as surely you've heard, is a game of inches. Many times an inch is all that separates an interception from a mere incompletion, a sack from a long passing play, a tackle for a loss from a big gain by the running back.
Just ask cornerback Aqib Talib, a still-green rookie in the NFL. While his performance Saturday night in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 23-17 defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars was outstanding – his coach, Jon Gruden, said so after the game – Talib was this close to making two big plays that could have earned him an even better evaluation.
In the second quarter, Talib entered the game with the rest of the first-team defense after starter Phillip Buchanon limped off the field. On his very first play in for Buchanon at left cornerback, Talib came on a corner blitz and put a nifty juke on Jags' running back Fred Taylor, who tried his best to fend off Talib. Quarterback David Garrard sensed the pressure and got rid of the ball as Talib bore down on him, denying the rookie a sack.
But while he came up just short of making a big play for himself, Talib's effort wasn't completely in vain. Garrard's hurried pass fluttered directly into the hands of cornerback Ronde Barber for an interception.
"They called a little corner blitz to the side," Talib said. "I came around the side, put a little move on Fred, and got kind of close. I actually did it wrong – I was supposed to stay outside, but I went inside and got a little pressure.
"I didn't get the sack, but good thing I didn't because Ronde got the pick. Ronde made a hell of a play. I've been waiting to get one of those plays and I finally got a chance to get one. He got the ball out of there though."
Barber, the beneficiary of Talib's blitz, said the play was just one example of the impressive start to his career that Talib has been able to put together.
"Aqib is a good player," Barber said. "You expect good players to play well. We expect a lot from those guys. He's a talented player and we'll be leaning on him a lot this year."
That near-sack and resulting interception was only the first of Talib's close calls. In the third quarter, the Jags tried a fade pattern from the Bucs' four-yard line as Garrard lofted a pass for wide receiver Reggie Williams toward the corner of the end zone. The fade is a very difficult pass for cornerbacks to defend, but Talib made it look easy.
The Bucs' 2008 first-rounder turned and found the ball at just the right time, had excellent position on the 6-4 Williams, and out-jumped the taller receiver in time to knock the ball harmlessly to the turf.
The play was a prime example of the elite athleticism that led the Bucs to draft Talib, but he actually came away disappointed he didn't make an even better play.
"I kind of lost it in the lights," Talib said with a grin. "I could have made a better play on it if I didn't lose it in the lights. They threw it up there to a pretty tall receiver and I kind of played it pretty good and got a chance to make a play on the ball."
A few inches of extra wingspan and an extra split second on his blitz – and perhaps a clearer view of the ball on that fade route – and Talib ends up with a sack and an interception next to his name on the stat sheet. Instead, he finished with just one pass defensed and one tackle, and that stop wasn't even on defense. His coaches will see much more on the game tape when they do their review.
Despite the "what ifs," Talib's lone tackle on the night was actually another excellent play.
In the second quarter, moments after the Bucs cut the Jags' lead to 10-7, kicker Matt Bryant booted the ensuing kickoff to the Jacksonville one-yard line. Wide receiver Troy Williamson fielded the kick and headed upfield, but didn't make it very far.
Talib blazed his way downfield, burst through the Jags' wedge and planted a solid form tackle on Williamson at the Jacksonville 12-yard line, stonewalling the return and setting the Jags up deep in their own territory.
"That was big," Talib said. "It was something we were working on all week. So the first time we called it, it was to my side, so I didn't want to make the play look bad. It worked out pretty good, just like [Associate Head Coach - Special Teams & Running Backs] Rich [Bisaccia] drew it up. It was a pretty good play."
For rookies, special teams are often the first opportunity to make an impact, and Talib said he enjoys his kicking game duties. For him, they are a chance to just let loose.
"Special teams are very important," Talib said. "It's a chance for you to not really worry about messing up, but just run down and kind of throw your face in there. It's always good to make tackles in special teams."
As he sat at his locker after what was easily his best performance as a professional thus far, Talib took a moment to reflect on how far he's come in the short time he's been a Buccaneer.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," Talib said. "From rookie minicamp when I first got here to now, it's a lot different, totally different. I'm not where I want to be, but I can tell the difference, definitely. I'm definitely feeling a lot more comfortable with everything I'm doing – covering the receivers, the plays, everything. I'm definitely a lot more comfortable."
With one preseason game remaining before his regular season debut, Talib seems to have already entrenched himself as the team's first option at nickel back. Buchanon's knee injury seemed minor, but just as close as Talib was to making two big plays Saturday night, the Bucs are always one play away from a potentially lineup-altering injury.
And if that day comes when he is called upon to start or see significant playing time, the ever-confident Talib says he'll be well-prepared.
"Whatever Coach Kiffin calls for, I think I'll be ready," Talib said. "I think Phillip is doing pretty good though. I talked to him and I think he'll be fine, but whatever Coach [Monte] Kiffin asks me to do, I'm willing to do it."