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New Tampa Bay Bucs defense tests cornerbacks' nerves, coverage skills

TAMPA — Each time Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib lines up across from a speed-demon receiver — ready to initiate another game of high-stakes, split-second chess — his mind races and his heart pounds.

Nothing less than the outcome of the game could rest on what transpires in the nerve-racking milliseconds that follow.

Really, it's no way to live.

But this is the life of an NFL defensive back, particularly those who play in a system like Tampa Bay's that relies on in-your-face, man-to-man coverage.

You've heard about the changes in the Bucs' defensive style. Now, let those who are asked to make it work explain what their jobs entail.

Talib, who Sunday will take on Randy Moss, the Patriots' 12-year veteran — on the heels of shutdown performances against the Eagles' DeSean Jackson and the Panthers' Steve Smith over the past two weeks — shared his thought process, beginning with what happens before the snap.

"The most important thing I'm thinking is, 'Stay inside,' " Talib, 23, said. "If you let that guy get inside of you (toward the middle of the field), he's going to run away from you. I'm also thinking, 'Move your feet.'

"Then, depending on the down and distance, I'm trying to think about what routes he might run. If it's third and 5, I might be playing the (first-down) sticks more than I'm playing the fade. … On a first and 10, I'm just playing safe. If he catches something underneath, then he just catches it. You're trying to stay on top of the route."

Free safety Tanard Jackson has spent a fair amount of time covering receivers and tight ends in the new matchup system. A cornerback at Syracuse, he is putting his cover skills to work as a part-time nickel cornerback for Tampa Bay.

"I'll start off by saying that when you're backpedaling against world-class speed — which most receivers in this league have — a good throw, (with) the timing on, there's nothing you can do," Jackson, 24, said. "Let's get that out there.

"But at the same time, it all starts in your preparation. You need to know what that quarterback and that receiver look for when they see man coverage. It starts with knowing their tendencies, their timing, everything they like to do. Any advantage you can get is worth it for you."

Talib, for instance, knows that when some receivers intend to break inside, they give a series of shake moves to throw off the defender. Others offer different hints. The key is film study.

"You have to spend some time watching tape if it means something to you," he said.

When defensive coordinator Jim Bates calls for his defensive backs to line up on their man rather than several yards off, the so-called bump comes into play. That's where things get really interesting.

The goal is to reroute the receiver and throw off the timing of the play within the 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage contact is permitted. A good bump can make all the difference. This is how Talib shut down Jackson, the second-year Eagles star, holding him to one catch for 1 yard on the heels of two 100-yard games. Bates called it Talib's best game of the season. Sunday, Talib helped limit Smith, in his ninth year with the Panthers, to one catch for 4 yards.

But ineffective bumps at the line are part of the reason the Bucs have given up 13 touchdown passes, third-most in the NFL, as they transition to this aggressive style.

"The key was just getting hands on (DeSean Jackson)," Talib said. "He's a lighter guy (5 feet 10, 175 pounds), so I tried to get my hands on him and knock him off his routes. I thought I did a good job with that at the line of scrimmage."

But opponents know how to adjust when they see the bump coming.

"Most quarterbacks, when they see bump coverage, they automatically check into a fade route and throw it up to give their (receiver) a chance," Tanard Jackson said. "You know that's a possibility. … You just have to stay square within those 5 yards and try to get your hands on him. You want to impede their progress. You want to throw off the timing, and hopefully the (pass) rush gets there."

And what if the bump isn't good enough and the receiver gets off the line clean?

"Don't panic," Jackson said. "Once you get in panic mode, you're liable to get a (pass interference penalty) or anything. And the main thing is, don't look back. You can't do that because before you know it, the ball's traveling over your head, (the receiver has) already caught it, and you're still looking back for the ball.

"Try to get in his face, because more than likely he'll break his route right or left and you can get underneath him."

It can be a tense series of events, and if the idea of staying calm seems easier said than done, it is.

"Of course that's hard," Talib said. "You have 70,000 people watching (in a stadium), no telling how many people watching on TV. It's easy to say that, but DBs do it so long, it kind of becomes second nature.

"You just have to bring it."

New Tampa Bay Bucs defense tests cornerbacks' nerves, coverage skills 10/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 11:33pm]
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