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Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib has matured on, off field

TAMPA — The list of receivers Aqib Talib has mirrored, shadowed, blanketed and otherwise shut down grows with each game.

Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson, Randy Moss, Braylon Edwards, Greg Jennings and Terrell Owens — to name a few — were held to five catches or fewer last season by the Bucs cornerback, who led the team with five interceptions.

Talib, 24, isn't ready to confess which pass catcher gives him the most trouble.

"There are too many guys I haven't played," Talib said. "I've got to get around the league and get my hands on everybody. Then I can tell you."

But if you ask NFL coaches or players to name the best bump-and-run corners in the league, Talib is high on the roll call.

"I think he's under the national media's radar, but everybody in the league already knows, especially if they've played against him," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said.

"Quarterbacks and receivers know it's a challenge every single second that he lines up against you. It's just a matter of time before somebody writes that he's better than (the Jets') Darrelle Revis. You didn't hear that from me, but put on the tape."

That's not to suggest three-fourths of the earth is covered by water and the rest by Talib.

In fact, before Talib began his best season as a pro, the Bucs' first-round pick in 2008 finally was confronted with a matchup he simply couldn't win.

It was Talib vs. Roger Goodell.

A series of off-field incidents that began with a scuffle at the NFL rookie symposium and culminated with an arrest and charge of assaulting a taxi driver last summer put Talib in the crosshairs of the league commissioner, the Park Avenue punisher.

The Bucs have taken more money out of Talib's paycheck than the IRS. He got off with a relative slap on the wrist for the taxi driver incident, an implied threat of a suspension for any more misconduct.

"Unfortunately, I was one of the guys who had a chance to go and sit in front of the commissioner," Talib said. "It ain't just Roger in that room. It's you and eight other guys. It's definitely a situation you don't want to be in. You can tell by the way they treat you the first time you go up there. If you show up again? I can just imagine how they treat you.

"It's a humbling experience. You don't want to go back there. That will make you clean up your act a lot."

According to coach Raheem Morris, Talib has been scared straighter than a Kansas highway.

"I'm not going to tell you he's ready to go and I'm ready to send him out there in a suit and tie into the business world," Morris said. "But what I can tell you is that he understands what he has to do."

Talib's growth as a person will only help his maturation as a player.

At 6 feet 2, 210 pounds with Inspector Gadget arms, Talib is physical, fast and supremely confident.

Last season, the Bucs asked Talib to essentially play man-to-man coverage on the opponent's best receiver for 65-70 plays in the scheme under since-fired defensive coordinator Jim Bates.

Talib probably was the Bucs' only player capable of that assignment. But even on his best day, when he tied Barber's club record with three interceptions against the Redskins, the expectations were too great. In the fourth quarter, having limited Santana Moss to one reception, he was beaten on a double move and yielded the winning touchdown.

"His physical traits and athletic abilities speak for themselves," Barber said. "But he has the ultimate confidence. He wants it. He expects it. He doesn't want the third wideout on your team. He doesn't want to cover that guy. That guy is not worth his skill set, and you appreciate that about him. He makes everybody else's job a little easier. Mainly, it's his self-assurance. He knows he's got it."

He also wants to keep it.

Even before Talib moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the seventh grade, he was a big Cowboys fan. Receiver Michael Irvin was his guy on offense, but it was Deion Sanders on defense.

"Nobody can be like Prime," Talib said of the former cornerback.

Playing in the NFL is Talib's dream, and he says he doesn't want to jeopardize that. But the self-confident swagger that made Talib a star at Kansas was met with skepticism when he came to the league.

He is the ultimate trash-talker, and his, uh, colorful language is sometimes enough to make a sailor blush. Talib disputes the notion, but at times, according to Morris, his rants have been misinterpreted by teammates.

A year ago during voluntary workouts, he had an altercation with offensive tackle Donald Penn that resulted in Talib accidentally striking cornerback Torrie Cox with his helmet, opening a gash on Cox's forehead that required stitches.

"It's easy to misconstrue a guy like that," Morris said. "When you use colorful or choice words that he can use on the football field, it's easy to take offense or feel like you're being upstaged by the guy. Even though that wasn't necessarily his meaning, that's how it's received.

"But I tell him something else: Don't take away all your personality. (Warren) Sapp was a loudmouth a little bit. And he got his point across, and people didn't like him all the time. But you're not trying to win a popularity contest. You're trying to win football games, and you're trying to be great. I'm not going to take it all away from him."

With Morris running the defense for the final six games last season, the Bucs allowed 17 points per game. It's hard to imagine what kind of season Talib might have if they are able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. (The Bucs tied for 26th last season with 28 sacks.)

"He's the kind of guy where I can say, 'Talib, you've got that guy, and I'll see you at halftime,' " defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. "That's a great thing to have.

"If he makes plays he should make and locks down the stud receiver every week, this should be an All-Pro year."

To do that, Talib will have to shut down a new array of receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Chad Ochocinco.

"I know what I have to do to prepare for that," Talib said. "Off the field, I've done a lot less going out. A lot less alcohol. A lot less everything.

"I come to Tampa from July until about the middle of January, depending how things go. I'm out here to work. I can have my little bit of fun in the offseason. I'm just focusing on what I'm out here for."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib has matured on, off field 08/07/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 8, 2010 12:11am]
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