Raheem Morris says Aqib Talib is "a go." That's music to Talib's ears.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rising-star cornerback has not played a football game in nine months. He missed the last four games of the 2010 season due to a hip injury, then tweaked a hamstring in training camp sat out all four 2011 preseason contests at the behest of a cautious coaching staff.
Some worried that the injury would linger into the start of the regular season, noting that a much-anticipated Week One matchup with Detroit Lions' wide receiver Calvin Johnson was at stake. That worry has been erased. Morris, the Buccaneers' third-year head coach, stated without hesitation on Tuesday that Talib will play in the season opener on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
"Aqib Talib is healthy," said Morris. "He was cleared to practice today. I can't wait to see his premium matchup; it'll be fun."
Talib said he had actually hoped to play last Thursday at Washington in the preseason finale, a game that most starters quite happily skip. He wanted just a brief cameo in order to get the feel for his first tackle and take a few full-speed releases at the line, but Morris told him to focus on the Lions. That was an easy request to follow; the second game that Talib missed at the end of last season was also against Detroit, and Johnson stung the Bucs for 152 yards on 10 catches.
"Since my injury last year, I couldn't wait to get back on the field," said Talib. "I didn't get a chance to play these guys last year, but they're a pretty good team. They definitely have a pretty good receiver I can't wait to go up against."
The Bucs' coaching staff had only begun sharing the offensive and defensive game plans with the players on Tuesday, so Talib was not yet sure how much of his playing time would be spent as Johnson's shadow. Of course, it's likely that Talib will be heavily involved in the plan to slow down the Lions' "Megatron," and Morris said his fourth-year cornerback was ready to play as many snaps as necessary. Talib admitted that playing football is the only sure way to get into "football shape," but both he and Morris think he'll be ready to run all day on Sunday.
"Megatron is a great football player and of course Talib was upset that he couldn't play in that game [last year], but he'll get his opportunity the first game this year," said Morris. "It should be fun. It should be lights-out football between two really good football players."
Johnson, understandably, wasn't overly involved in the Lions' offensive plans during the preseason, catching just four passes. However, he predictably turned those four plays into 106 yards and a touchdown, averaging 26.5 yards per grab even though none of the four plays was longer than 39 yards. Overall, the Lions' offense was clicking throughout August and early September, racking up 386 yards per game and scoring an NFL-high 28.5 points per outing. Young quarterback Matthew Stafford, returning from his own injury, was particularly sharp, completing 75.8% of his passes, averaging 12.0 yards per attempt, tossing five TDs and compiling a near-perfect 154.7 passer rating.
"He's looking good," said Talib, who is easily the Bucs' leader over the past three seasons with 15 interceptions. "They're putting up numbers in this preseason and they're clicking on all cylinders. Their offense and defense look real good right now."
Talib will get a closer look at those Lions on Sunday. He's just happy he won't be watching from the sideline.
On the Line
Johnson's 152-yard day wasn't the only standout performance by a skill-position player when the Bucs and Lions met last December.
Each team had a 100-yard rusher in the game, with the Bucs' LeGarrette Blount running for 110 and the Lions' Maurice Morris countering with 109. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman threw for 251 yards, one TD, no interceptions and a 99.9 passer rating. Stafford, Detroit's young franchise passer, was out due to injury by Drew Stanton stepped in and almost exactly duplicated Freeman's numbers: 23-for-37, 252 yards, 1 TD, no interceptions and a 91.3 rating. The Bucs' Mike Williams just missed his own 100-yard game by four yards, and he caught his eighth scoring pass of the year.
Stafford will get the start for Detroit when the two teams meet again on Sunday – that's a major difference – but some things won't change. The Bucs will still be very concerned with Johnson and the Lions will do their best to slow down Blount. Through Jahvid Best, Arrelious Benn and a few others into the mix, and there will be plenty of firepower to go around.
However, the key to the game may actually be in the trenches, not on the edges. Count Buccaneers defensive tackle Roy Miller as a believer in that theory. That doesn't mean Miller thinks Johnson and company are any less dangerous than they were nine months ago. Rather, he believes the Bucs will need to disrupt the action before Megatron can do his damage.
Nine months ago, Stanton was able to feed the ball to Johnson repeatedly in large part because the Buccaneers' defense was held to zero sacks on the day. Miller says that has to change this time around, and he's not shying away from the responsibility he knows is on him and his fellow D-Linemen.
"There's definitely a lot on our shoulders," said the third-year defender. "We've got to get to that quarterback. We've got the guys to get there, so there's really no excuse not to. We feel that and we know that and that's why we go out there and practice as hard as we do, and why our coaches stay on us like they do."
Of course, Buccaneers management believes in the it-starts-up-front mantra in a much larger sense, and that's why they have focused on rebuilding the roster from the inside out. They have used four first or second-round picks on defensive linemen in the last 17 months and they are determined to do much better than the 26 sacks per season they have averaged since 2006. But the recent changes didn't stop at the roster, and that's one reason Miller feels more confident in his third season. He says he can already see the difference that new Defensive Line Coaches Grady Stretz and Keith Millard have brought to his group since they arrived in January.
"Our coaches do a great job of letting us know, hey, here's the situation," said Miller. "They're giving us all the awareness that they can so when it's time to rush, when it's time to go, you know where to go. You know the weaknesses and strengths of their players. I think that has a lot to do with Millard playing in this league and playing so well. He has all the instincts. I think it's going to work out to our advantage."
Miller said that, under the tutelage of Millard and Stretz, the Bucs' defensive line is taking a slightly different approach to stopping the Lions' rushing attack this time around. Miller said the Bucs lined up in a more "tilted" front against Detroit last December, when they gave up 181 rushing yards and 433 yards overall, and will work on "staying square" this Sunday.
"I think it will be a big difference," said Miller. "Just learning – Coach Grady and Coach Millard are doing a great job of teaching us new techniques that will help us out a lot more on the run. I feel very confident in it."
Miller's playing time was limited during the preseason due a knee injury but he said he was ready to return for the season opener. The rest of the Bucs' defensive line turned up the pressure in August, racking up 14 sacks, an average of 3.5 per game. Last year, Tampa Bay's defense averaged 1.6 sacks per game. Morris knows that preseason numbers don't necessarily translate into the regular season, but he is encouraged by what he has seen from his front line.
"They look good," he said. "Those guys are fired up. Their coaches are fired up. Keith's done a great job of getting those guys to the pass rush. Grady has done a great job of getting those guys to stop the run. A great indicator of that would be the Miami game where we locked in, heated, fitted. I'm going to get those guys out there to play fast and hopefully consistent, and I look forward to seeing it on Sunday."
New Role for Graham…Again
The ever-evolving career of Earnest Graham is taking another turn.
Of course it is.
Since first arriving in Tampa as an undrafted free agent in 2003, Graham has been a practice squad player, a special teams ace, a reserve tailback, a starting tailback, a starting fullback and sometimes several of those things at once. Other than the practice squad, you might find Graham returning to any of those rolls in 2011. But as the season begins, he has a new primary job.
That doesn't mean Graham will only play on third downs, but it does mean he will see a lot of action in passing situations. The third-down back needs to catch the ball well, execute protection schemes as flawlessly as possible and make the most out of an occasional run. The Buccaneers know that Graham can do all of those things.
Young back Kregg Lumpkin vied for that role in training camp, and starting tailback LeGarrette Blount has worked on his pass-blocking skills in an effort to see more work on third downs. For now, however, the team feels most comfortable with Graham in that role.
"Earnest has won the starting third-down spot," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson, who indicated how important that job is considered to be by terming it a "starting" position when technically it is not. "It will change on how Earnest feels, to be honest, and how much he is carrying the ball at tailback but we are real comfortable with Earnest again. That's not a knock on Kregg Lumpkin or LeGarrette Blount at this point, it's just someone that's familiar with our system, someone that we trust and someone that's stepped up and taken on that role and has proved himself on a daily basis at practice and in the preseason."
Olson said that Graham will still get some work at fullback, but that role might have only called for him to be on the field for 5-10 snaps a game. Instead, the team will use second-year man Erik Lorig, who converted to offense from defensive end last September, as its primary blocking back and continue to plumb Graham's seemingly bottomless well of skills in a variety of ways.
"We like the development of Lorig at this point," said Olson. "He provides obviously a bigger body, a little bit more explosiveness in that position and, again we do like what we are doing right now with our two-tight end package with the development of Luke Stocker and the addition of Luke Stocker."
Graham has seemingly never been bothered by his shifting roles in the Bucs' offense, willing to do whatever will help the team win. And as he looks at his new job, and the assembled talent around him, he thinks they are definitely in position to win some games.
"I think we're going to be more prepared this year," said Graham. "We'd like to start faster. We've been able to add a couple things to the offense because a lot of guys are now in their second year in it, which allows us to play faster. I think in all aspects we're going to be better."
Johnson Returns to Practice Squad
First-year defensive end George Johnson, who was waived on Monday when the Buccaneers claimed tight end Zack Pianalto, has returned to the team, signing with the practice squad on Tuesday. As an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers last year, Johnson spent 13 weeks on Tampa Bay's practice squad and the final three on the active roster.
To make room for Johnson on the eight-man practice squad, the team released tight end Daniel Hardy.
Johnson made the 53-man roster again on Saturday after leading the team in the preseason with three sacks. Though he has now moved back to the practice squad, it would certainly be no surprise to see him play on Sundays at some point this season. Last year, 11 different players, including Johnson, earned promotions to the active roster after appearing on the Bucs' practice squad at some point.
In 51 games and 35 starts at Rutgers, the 6-4, 265-pound Johnson tallied 134 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss, 13.0 sacks and two interceptions. He capped his college career with a 44-tackle, 6.5-sack campaign in 2009.