TAMPA — The Bucs may say they don't know whether Aqib Talib will be suspended again by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but they are preparing as if their troubled cornerback is going to miss games this season.
Coach Raheem Morris said he planned to treat Talib's situation as if he were an injured player.
Talib met with Goodell on Tuesday in New York. He faces charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from his role in a shooting March 21 in Garland, Texas.
"For me, it's next man up," Morris said Tuesday. "… It's the next guy out of the box. There's a reason you practice, there's a reason you practice with depth. There's a reason (general manager) Mark Dominik drafts and steals corners from people because we prepare for everything. We want to be the deepest team in the league and the youngest team in the league. Hungry. Go out and play.
"I wish Aqib nothing but the best, but next man up theory. Don't even blink."
The truth is, the Bucs haven't had the use of Talib's talent for some time. He was suspended for the first game last season for assaulting a St. Petersburg cab driver in 2009. He missed the final four games of 2010 with a hip injury he suffered Dec. 5 against Atlanta. Talib also missed both preseason games with a hamstring injury, though he could play Saturday against Miami.
"I don't know if he's going to be here or not as far as this upcoming game," said E.J. Biggers, Talib's replacement at left cornerback. "I mean, he's the best corner we have on the team, so obviously, we want him to be around. I'm praying for the best for him."
Biggers, a seventh-round pick in 2009, normally serves as the Bucs' third defensive back on passing downs. Last season he started five games and finished with 53 tackles and one interception. With Myron Lewis nursing a hamstring injury, Elbert Mack has moved up to take over as nickel cornerback.
"Obviously, when (Talib) gets back, it bumps everybody back a spot from wherever you were," Mack said. "You know, it limits your playing time or it can give you more. You just never know. You've just got to go out there and make the best of your opportunity."
Despite missing five games, Talib led the Bucs with six interceptions in 2010. Tampa Bay went 4-1 during his absence. The exception was a 23-20 overtime loss to the Lions that ultimately kept the 10-6 Bucs out of the playoffs.
Without Talib, the Bucs had nobody to match up with Lions Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson, who had 10 catches for 152 yards. Tampa Bay opens the regular season against Detroit on Sept. 11 at Raymond James Stadium.
"Megatron," Morris said of Johnson. "We'll see. Right now MLew (Lewis) has sort of been hampered by the hamstring, so I don't know exactly where he is. But that would be a nice matchup with MLew. It could be a possible nice matchup with Biggers' quickness. You could put the old crafty vet (Ronde Barber) on him. Let go out there and be scrappy and possibly win.
"Ronde is up for any challenge. I would never put anything past him. We'll just have to go see. D.J. Johnson is another big, long corner. See where he is. See what he could possibly do. We've got a bunch of different things to throw at him."
Time will only tell if Talib will be one of them.
"I think a couple guys have played well for us in the preseason," Dominik said. "It is what it is in this league. Sometimes you have tough injuries you have to deal with. Sometimes you have other things that could affect your football team.
"As Coach Morris said, next man up. That's how we'll handle it."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.