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Of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' flaws, Aqib Talib's struggles might top the list

Imagine the kid quarterback in the pocket. Imagine that he looks fairly comfortable there.

This should not be hard, because so far, there has been very little rookie to the rookie season of Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. He has been poised, he has been precise, and, already, it is obvious that the kid who just got here knows how to put the ball there.

Imagine Bradford taking his time. Imagine him pulling out his cell phone and ordering pizza as he drops back to pass.

That's fairly easy to picture, too, because there is no rush to the Bucs' pass rush. For opposing quarterbacks, the only concern to throwing the ball is wondering whether the clock will run out before he can find a receiver.

Now imagine a football in the air. Imagine it spiraling as it travels high and long down the right sideline.

Yeah, you've seen that before, too. For much of this season, opponents have taken their yards in chunks against the Bucs secondary.

Why should this week be any different?

Now imagine the Rams receiver running downfield is being covered by Aqib Talib.

Do you imagine Talib knocking the ball away? Or do you imagine the official signaling for another touchdown?

For all of the shortcomings of a still-under-construction Bucs team, this has been the most jolting. Not because Talib can't play but because he can and because he hasn't. The result has been more disappointing than watching a running game spin its wheels, worse than a pass rush that rarely shows up in the picture frame, worse than a run defense that opens like a sliding-glass door. In those areas, you knew the Bucs were hoping the duct tape would hold.

On the other hand, this is Talib. He was supposed to be good.

He was not supposed to be the Return of Toast.

So far, the struggles of Talib have been the most stunning letdown of the Bucs' season. He was the most talented player on this defense, remember? He was the team's most likely Pro Bowl player. He was one area of the team that was solid, which was going to allow the Bucs to forget about his piece of the field and worry about everywhere else. It did not seem like too much to ask that Talib would have shown more than flashes of excellence by now.

Instead, Talib has been bad enough to make you worry that he has been body-snatched by Rod "Toast" Jones. To put it another way, there has been less Dick "Night Train" Lane to Talib's game and more Jeremiah "Nightmare" Castille. To put it bluntly, the guy hasn't been Mel Blount.

There was the time he was beaten while the Bucs blitzed against Carolina, and the ball off his hands for a touchdown against Pittsburgh, and the bad guess against Cincinnati, and the miscommunication against the Saints. That's four scores in four starts too many.

That's the thing about playing cornerback in the NFL. Fans hope for Alexander the Great, covering the world. Sometimes, they get Joan of Arc, fighting off the flames.

"He isn't great yet," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "I think he knows that. The expectation level is for him to be great. To be great, he has to lock in on those finer details of play that he has missed. Those are the four plays you have to talk about. Everything else, he's been lights out. He's missing on one play a game."

For a cornerback, one miss a day is too many, especially when the scoreboard changes. Making the play most of the time is not the job description.

Friday morning, for instance, Morris and Talib were arguing about the best cornerback in the league. Darrelle Revis, Talib said. Charles Woodson, Morris said.

Eventually, such an argument should include Talib's name. Scouts have never doubted he has that kind of talent. Still, Talib has spent far too many plays watching his receiver dance in the end zone. In a season of blackouts, Talib seems to suffer from them as well.

Is Talib guessing so much he has become reckless? Possibly. Is it focus? Possibly. Is his lack of control off the field translating onto it? Possibly. Is it a hangover from his one-game suspension? Possibly. Is it the residue of the poor pass rush and poor run defense? Possibly. Is it the nature of playing cornerback, where the scoreboard changes every time you make a mistake? Absolutely.

Last week, Morris said Talib's problem is consistency.

Somehow, that is not a comfort. Great players are like airplane pilots — consistency is the whole point.

No matter what the reason for the poor play, this should be unacceptable to the Bucs, and to Talib. He is better than this. And frankly, the Bucs cannot afford for a strength to turn into a weakness. After all, this defense doesn't have enough excellence. If Talib doesn't play to that level, who will?

Say what you want about Talib, who has shown a lot of doesn't-get-it in his past. But the guy should be a talented cornerback. It should eat him up that he has not been. For a driven player, anything less than being compared to the top handful in the NFL shouldn't be good enough.

Now we find out if Talib is driven. Now we find out if being an elite corner is important to him.

"I think he's as driven as any player I've been around," Morris said. "I don't think his problem is mental, because he's as tough mentally as anyone."

When a cornerback goes bad, it usually doesn't have anything to do with his legs, and it rarely has anything to do with his knowledge. Most often, what it has to do with is the mental approach to his game. There are a lot of corners who were more physical than Deion Sanders and a lot who ran faster than Lester Hayes. And still, both of them were able to change the way opposing offenses approached a play. A great cornerback can do that. He can shut off half the field.

So far, Talib hasn't been that level of corner. He has been just another guy, and when the ball is in the air, a bad play is just as likely a big one.

Today, he'll get his chance again. Maybe three or four of them. Talib certainly isn't playing well enough for the Rams to avoid him.

At corner, you make the play or you don't. You measure up or you can't. You eat the opponent for lunch or you end up as a side dish for breakfast. Toast, they call it.

Somewhere, Rod Jones is watching.

Leave his legacy alone, won't you?

Of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' flaws, Aqib Talib's struggles might top the list 10/23/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 24, 2010 12:21pm]
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