CB Aqib Talib has played his best back-to-back games this season, first limiting Packers WR Greg Jennings to two catches for 6 yards then returning an interception for a touchdown last week against the Titans (only his second interception of the season).
The challenge gets even tougher today when Talib is locked up with the Panthers' Steve Smith, who has 59 receptions (tied for seventh in the league) for 1,060 yards (second) and five touchdowns.
Since becoming a starter in 2009 (he played mostly nickel as a rookie in 2008), Talib has gotten the best of Smith in one-on-one battles, not allowing more than three receptions in any game. Of course, some of that says more about the Panthers' quarterbacks than Talib's coverage, but it has been a premier matchup he has won.
"Steve Smith will talk to me. Aqib's not a big talker in games," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "Off the field, (Talib) is the biggest yapper there is. He's got asthma. He's too concerned with breathing in the game."
Big-play defense: Here's something else that has left the Bucs defense — particularly their secondary — breathless. Tampa Bay has given up nine passes of more than 40 yards this season — as many as it did all of last season.
For a franchise that branded the Tampa 2, a two-deep zone coverage designed to limit big passing plays — but largely abandoned — that reads like a misprint.
"You can point the finger right at me," said Morris, who doubles as defensive coordinator. "We've played a lot more man (coverage) than we've normally played. But we've had to do some different things there because of some missing people. We're always going to talk about filling in holes and doing what we need to do to win football games.
"We've been in a couple of them. We've lost a couple. But we've got to go out there and compete. We've got to try to win football games. No different than we did at the end of that Green Bay game. We didn't want to go out there and play soft. We wanted to play ferocious and play to finish."
While it's true quarterbacks such as the Saints' Drew Brees, Packers' Aaron Rodgers and Patriots' Tom Brady will carve up teams that sit in zone coverage, there's something to be said for limiting big plays.
What's more, the aggressive style has produced only 11 interceptions, nine by defensive backs.
Talib, CB Ronde Barber and S Tanard Jackson share the club lead with two.
Meanwhile, on the other side: As bad as the defense has played this season under Morris — they rank 31st overall and 30th in sacks with 17 — you get the feeling offensive coordinator Greg Olson is under more pressure for these final five games.
Tampa Bay has failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter this season. And its red zone production is ranked 29th in the league with 12 touchdowns among 29 trips inside the opponents' 20. They also have 10 field goals.
That means seven times they failed to score at all.
Penalties and, lately, turnovers have been the culprit. But the slow starts have been mind-numbing.
"Last weekend, we fumbled on the second play of the game," Olson said. "We fumbled on our first two series of the second half, and you can't start halves like that. The second series, we had a decent drive down there. But we did not execute on a couple of plays there on first and second down and didn't get enough on third down and ended up settling for a field goal there.
"If there is one thing, I think you would pinpoint and work on it. We've got a number of different issues, and we've just got to clean it up overall."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.