TAMPA — As they begin the final month of the season, the Bucs are quite literally limping to the finish.
Nowhere is this more true than in the secondary, where in the past two weeks, safety Cody Grimm broke his left fibula at Baltimore and cornerback Aqib Talib tore a tendon off the bone near his hip against Atlanta. Both players are lost for the season.
For what he did in the Bucs defense — routinely locking down the opponent's best receiver man-to-man — Talib is hard to replace. He is second in the NFL with six interceptions.
Second-year pro E.J. Biggers, who started the opener while Talib was serving a one-game suspension for his involvement in an assault on a cab driver in 2009, takes over at cornerback opposite Ronde Barber.
Biggers, a seventh-round pick from Western Michigan, will face Super Bowl quarterbacks Donovan McNabb (Redskins), Matt Hasselbeck (Seahawks) and Drew Brees (Saints) in three of the next four weeks.
"If I was a quarterback, I would go at (me)," Biggers said. "We have two of the best corners in the league and losing a guy like (Talib), it's a lot out there. I watch him and Ronde every day, and I'm just trying to be the next best thing coming up. Those guys teach me all the techniques I need to know. Aqib is a great, great, great corner. I watch everything he does. I just have to step up now. That's the nature of the beast. When somebody goes down, the next guy has to step up."
When Talib was injured in the first half of Sunday's 28-24 loss to Atlanta, quarterback Matt Ryan tested Biggers on the next play. He motioned receiver Roddy White inside to identify that Biggers was in man coverage, then threw in his direction. Biggers snapped his head around on an out route and batted the pass away.
"There are some plays I left out there — plays I should have made," Biggers said. "They probably could have made a difference in the game. I'll learn from them and get better."
One such play went a long way toward costing the Bucs a game. Trailing by three, Atlanta faced third and 20 in its territory.
White ran a deep out 5 yards beyond the first-down marker, a play that should rarely work against a Cover 2 defense. But Biggers didn't drop deep enough and safety Corey Lynch, making his first start, wasn't lined up wide enough at the snap to make a play on the ball. The conversion sparked the winning drive.
"You erase that one play, he had a great game," defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said of Biggers, who has 27 tackles, eight pass breakups and one interception this season. "It's a perfect game. But you can't do that. So we're all going to learn as a group from that play. It was a hard play to take, he wasn't trying to give up that play. The issue would be if it ever happened again.
"I have all the confidence in the world in E.J. He's played good for us on third down all year long and now he's going to get more snaps."
With Biggers starting, the Bucs will play rookie Myron Lewis in nickel passing situations. Lewis yielded the winning touchdown pass to the Falcons' Michael Jenkins.
"He went out there and had a couple plays that he made, a couple that he missed," coach Raheem Morris said of Lewis. "He'd like a couple of those back, but that comes with time and experience.
"When you put those DBs out there, you've got to put them out there and just play confident. I don't ever want those guys playing scared or playing tentative. That's when you get in trouble. That's usually what happens when you put a guy out there the first time in a full-time capacity."
A year ago at Washington, Talib bottled up Redskins receiver Santana Moss, intercepting quarterback Jason Campbell a career-best three times. But Talib also yielded the winning touchdown to Moss.
On Sunday, the Bucs would be happy if Biggers can just keep Moss out of the end zone. If so, despite being so hobbled in the secondary, the Bucs may be able to make a run at the postseason.
"We're still going to be disruptive in the back end," Lake said.