Aqib Talib picked off five passes in his first six games this season, and if there is anything that's going to eventually punch his first Pro Bowl ticket, it's numbers like that.
You won't see too many defensive ends make the all-star game without big sack numbers, and you'd better take a couple to the house if you want to be returning kicks in Honolulu in February.
And if you're a cornerback, voters want to see picks.
Ronde Barber might have been one of the two or three best corners in the NFL in 2000, when he racked up 97 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 20 passes defensed, two interceptions and two touchdowns. He didn't get his first Pro Bowl nod until 2001, when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions.
So it's funny that in the Buccaneers' last two games, Talib hasn't picked off a single pass (two games – what a drought!) but he has begun to show that he is becoming one of the NFL's most complete cornerbacks.
Since he entered the league as the 20th overall pick in the 2008 draft, few have doubted Talib's big-play ability, coverage skills or athleticism when the ball is in the air. He had four picks as a rookie even though he started only two games. He had another five last year in his first season manning the left cornerback spot, and it took him just six games to equal that total this year.
But he wasn't considered a particularly physical run-support player, a point made sharper by the contrast of Barber's presence on the other side of the defense. Barber, who surpassed 100 tackles in five of the previous six seasons (and has 24 career sacks to boot), might be the best run-support cornerback of his era.
The 2010 version of Aqib Talib looks different, however. Especially in the Bucs' last few games, Talib has been a notable presence against the run.
"The last three weeks, what Aqib Talib has been able to do in what we call 'chute awareness' or 'keep the cup' has been un-be-lievable," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, separating the consonants of that last word for emphasis. "To watch him run up [against Carolina] and make some of the tackles that he made and do some of the physical things that he did not show in his first two years here – maybe sparingly – to watch him become this complete corner, is really fun to watch."
Against Arizona, Atlanta and Carolina, Talib racked up 22 tackles, including a single-game career-high nine last Sunday versus the Panthers. He recorded his first tackle for a loss on Sunday, as well, and on one notable play prevented a disaster when running back Mike Goodson ran into a wall trying to go left but managed to reverse field and find the right edge wide open. Talib was locked in man-to-man coverage with wide receiver Steve Smith about 20 yards downfield, but he saw the cutback developing and dashed up to make the solo tackle, limiting a probable big gain to just six yards.
"His tackles, they were legit," said Morris. "They were tackles for loss, they were big-man plays. It's really been special. He's fun to watch and it's fun to let him go out there and play."
Of course, over that three-game span that Morris isolates, Talib also had two interceptions (both at Arizona in Week Eight) and five passes defensed. He is tied for second in the NFL in that premier cornerback stat category. Interceptions and clamp-down coverage on dangerous players like Smith are still the most important things that Talib can provide the Buccaneers, and they are still the things that will get him to the Pro Bowl in the long run. But to maximize his potential, and the potential of the Buccaneers' defense, Talib needed to embrace all the aspects of corner play in the NFL. He has done so, and the results are obvious.
"I don't think he was ever not willing [to tackle]," said Morris. "I think it's a sense of urgency. It's a better understanding of team, game and how everything works for him. Sometimes in college you'll watch guys and they have 'loafs' on the backside of plays and they don't understand why you downgrade them. I don't think he really understood that when he was in Kansas. When he got here, you try to stress it.
"Then there's a certain amount of preparation you've got to put in to be able to do that. You've got to be willing to run 70 snaps full-speed, which people don't give him credit for. He's able to do that and I'm loving it. I hope he continues to grow because you guys will see a great corner there."
A Sign of Respect
Three weeks ago in Arizona, tight end Kellen Winslow caught just one pass for five yards in Tampa Bay's 38-35 win over the Cardinals.
That marked Winslow's lowest reception and yardage totals in any of the 25 games he's played as a Buccaneer since coming over from Cleveland via trade in 2009. It wasn't a particular surprise, however, nor any indication of a lapse in Winslow's play. Rather, the Cardinals made a specific decision to pay close attention to the Bucs' productive tight end, frequently blanketing him with extra defenders.
Of course, that meant more open spaces elsewhere on the field, and not coincidentally rookie wideout burned the Cardinals for 105 yards and a touchdown. Overall, the Bucs racked up 407 yards of offense and their highest point total of the year (helped by two defensive scores).
This past Sunday against the Panthers, Winslow caught six passes for 65 yards and his first touchdown of the season. That was due in part to Carolina's decision to roll coverages towards Williams, who had been the Buccaneers' most consistent offensive weapon in 2010. Consequently, while Tampa Bay again surpassed 400 yards and 30 points, and once again came away victorious, it was Williams who was personally limited to "only" 68 yards on four receptions. Carolina was particularly careful with Williams in the first half, and the rookie had no catches before halftime while Winslow had three for 41 yards and his 20-yard score.
Carolina's decision was a telling sign of respect to the Buccaneer receiver, who has quickly emerged as one of the NFL's most productive receivers. Williams might have to get used to more days like that, as opposing defensive coordinators choose their poison.
"Especially in the first half, every time I went there were two and three defenders around," said the rookie. "I didn't even know what the coverage was sometimes, and I'd come back to the sideline and [Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson] would tell me, 'Yeah, they're playing to your side.'"
Every receiver wants to have the football in his hands, but it wasn't difficult for Williams to see that his own difficult situation was actually helping the Bucs' offense in other ways.
"If you double anybody, we feel like somebody else is going to get off," he said. "That's how we give respect to each other in our meeting room. It's like, 'If he gets doubled and you're one-on-one, you'd better win.' That's what we say to each other. Hopefully they play 10 in a box. We'll be wide-open downfield. Hopefully it works out that way."
Opposing teams aren't likely to adopt that strategy, but the emergence of LeGarrette Blount is making it more difficult for Buccaneer foes to double-cover wideouts and tight ends. That was clear, too, on Sunday when Blount's big first half caused Carolina to shift strategies and Williams found much more room to operate in the second half.
"I think we all are starting to see the benefits of having multiple weapons on the field," said Morris. "Mike Williams started off and we called him the number-one wideout, and then the story was, 'Why is [Arrelious] Benn taking so long to develop?' Now we're starting to see Benn come along, and then it's, 'Why hasn't Kellen scored a touchdown?' Well, because of Mike Williams and Benn. Then Kellen goes out and scores a touchdown and starts to control the middle and then it's, 'Where's the running game?' Then LeGarrette Blount shows up. Then, 'Why hasn't Cadillac touched the ball and carried past 2.5?' Then, boom, he runs off a 45-yarder.
"Really, it all goes back to one guy, the quarterback. Once you get that guy and put people around him, they'll have success because he'll get them the ball when it's time to.
Graham, Trueblood Showing Improvement
As has become their custom of late, thanks to an assortment of aches and strains dotting the 53-man roster, the Buccaneers started their practice week on Wednesday with a slowed-down afternoon session. Much of the day was spent at walk-through speed, which made it easier for players with minor injuries to participate.
Still, it was a welcome sight on Wednesday when fullback Earnest Graham, who has missed three of the past four games with a hamstring ailment, was back at full participation. Because Graham offers so many options to the Bucs' attack – he is a willing lead blocker, he led the team in rushing in 2007 and he's an excellent pass-catcher out of the backfield – the team is eager to have him back in the mix.
The Bucs are also nearing full strength on the front line, where both center Jeff Faine and tackle Jeremy Trueblood were able to practice without limits on Wednesday. For Faine, that's an indication that he came out of his first start in five games without suffering a setback with his quad injury. For Trueblood, it could mean he's another step closer to rejoining the starting line. Trueblood was inactive in Weeks Eight and Nine and limited to a backup role last Sunday by a knee injury suffered against St. Louis, with James Lee starting in his place at right tackle.
When Faine returned against the Panthers on Sunday, he replaced Jeremy Zuttah, who had started in his place at center and was considered an option to move to left guard when that work was done. However, rookie Ted Larsen, a waiver-claim pickup just before the start of the season, has impressed the coaching staff in his four starts at that spot and will now be difficult to unseat. The strong play of Zuttah, Larsen and Lee and now the gradual returns to health by Faine and Trueblood have the Buccaneers believing they are in better shape up front than they have been in some time.
Whether or not Trueblood is available for a larger role in San Francisco will be more obvious after Thursday's full-speed practice.
"He was out there practicing today," said Morris. "Obviously, we've got a slower practice than normal. Tomorrow's really the big test. We'll get him out there and let him put his best effort forward. We'll see.
"But I'm very pleased with what all those guys have been able to do. That's the sign of a good unit coming together. At this time last year we were talking about whether the O-Line was overrated; now we've seen a bunch of players step in there and play really well and do a nice job. We're headed in the right direction, starting to get more pieces, and I like where it's going."