The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are bracing for the challenge of defending Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald. The All-Pro receiver has had a down year with an uncertain QB situation.
Every week in the NFL the Buccaneers are forced to prepare for some talented players, but this week Tampa Bay’s defense will matchup with one of the best of the best in Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. While Fitzgerald’s numbers are done from past seasons, that is because of the shaky quarterback situation in Arizona and not because of any change in Fitzgerald.
“He’s fearless. He goes up and puts his hands in there every time,” said head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. “Its not like he is shying away. He’ll grab the ball and snatch it out of the air. He’ll be big, he’ll be fast, he’ll do whatever it takes on a play to go out there and get a win, and that is the sign of a great wide out.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Fitzgerald has missed not having veteran quarterback Kurt Warner this year. After Warner’s retirement, the Cardinals have played Derek Anderson and undrafted rookie Max Hall. This season Fitzgerald has caught 29 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns, which on par with Bucs rookie wide receiver Mike Williams who has 28 catches for 365 yards and three touchdowns. Last year Fitzgerald totaled 1,092 yards on 97 catches with 13 touchdowns.
“Football is in his pedigree. He’s been born and raised going through the process,” said Morris. “He was around great wide outs as a young cat coming into the league. He’s been a hard-worker and a studier, and his length, his ball skills, his work ethic, and everything he brings to the party is what makes him a great football player. He’s arguably one of the best wide outs in the game, and he’ll come out there with great effort on Sunday. We look forward to going out there and playing against him.”
Growing up Fitzgerald was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings and was close with Vikings great Cris Carter. Carter has served as mentor to Fitzgerald throughout his pro career as well. After a prolific career at Pittsburgh, Fitzgerald was the third-overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft by the Cardinals. Free safety Cody Grimm knows Fitzgerald well after watching him for years play on the team that his father, Russ Grimm, coaches.
“Pretty much we have to know where he’s at. He’s not always going to be at the Z or the X,” said Grimm. “He actually lines up all over the place, so we have to keep an eye on where he is and make sure we know he is at. Depending on where he lines up then try and think of what he’s going to run.”
Identifying Fitzgerald is something that is different for the Bucs secondary according to starting strong safety Sean Jones.
“Typically number ones either line up at the X or the Z,” said Jones. “He lines up everywhere. We always have to have an eye out for him at all times for us to defend him. We got to know where he is at all times. We have a good game plan in.”
Fitzgerald’s best season came in 2008 when he caught 96 passes for 1,431 yards and 12 touchdowns. That season the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year before in 2007 Fitzgerald had 100 catches for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns. Fitzgerald, 27, has averaged 1,000 yards a season in his career.
“Obviously he’s been a dominant receiver since he got in the league,” said Jones. “He has great hands, good [body-control]. We got to be ready. We got to be downfield and make plays on the ball. We got to go out there and be aggressive with him.”
The Buccaneers have had issues with defending long touchdown passes. In the first game Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi caught a 41-yard touchdown pass. In Week 2 Panthers wide out Steve Smith caught a 37-yard touchdown pass. In Week 3 Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace caught a 46-yard touchdown pass and a 41-yard touchdown pass. In the next game at Cincinnati wide receiver Terrell Owens caught a 43-yard touchdown pass. Against the Saints quarterback Drew Brees hit wide receiver Lance Moore for a 41-yard touchdown pass and wide out Robert Meachem for a 42-yard touchdown pass. Last Sunday against the Rams was the first game in the season that Tampa Bay did not allow a long touchdown pass.
One player that is going to be charged with not letting Fitzgerald beat the Bucs for a long touchdown is cornerback E.J. Biggers.
“He is one of the best when you are watching him,” said Biggers. “When he was at Pittsburgh he was one of the best in college and right now he is one of the best in the NFL. There are a lot of great receivers and he’s easily up there with them. He does a lot of great things. He can do everything smaller receivers can do and does what the big receivers do – go up and get the ball at the highest point.
“He’s a playmaker who attacks the ball relentlessly. When the ball is in the air he goes after it like he is just playing catch with his quarterback like nobody is around him. He does a lot of great things. He lines up in a different spots, but like I said he is a go-getter for that ball.”
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