Aqib Talib landing on injured reserve this week continues to be the latest bad news for Tampa Bay’s inconsistent secondary. Given the reality that playing beyond Week 17 is out of the conversation, there is a silver lining to the situation.
The Buccaneers’ coaching staff and front office will get two full games to assess the value of gently used cornerbacks Myron Lewis and Anthony Gaitor. Considering Talib’s uncertain 2012 status because of a March trial date for felony assault with a deadly weapon and veteran Ronde Barber’s looming decision to come back for a 16th season, the position could be in for some big changes.
What the team sees or fails to see from Lewis and Gaitor, as well as E.J. Biggers and Elbert Mack, in Carolina and Atlanta may heavily dictate what the Bucs focus on come draft time in April and in the free agent market.
Biggers and Mack have appeared in all 14 games this season, with Biggers’ four starts being the only ones earned by any of the four corners. Lewis (eight games) and Gaitor (seven games) will have an opportunity the next two weeks to prove they belong in Pewter and Red.
“It certainly opens up a door for Anthony Gaitor or Myron Lewis to get if not one of them maybe both of them out there at different times and different situations to cover different people,” Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris said. “It’s no secret we like to match up and play some man-to-man so you want to put the best guy to match up on those best guys. Whatever situations present themselves.
“We’ve got to go out there and see; let these guys go out there and play football and use them all. We think they’re all quality football players and they’ll give us quality work on Sunday.”
How much playing time Lewis (two tackles, no other defensive stats) and Gaitor (three tackles, no other defensive stats) receive this Saturday in Carolina hasn’t been specified, but the opportunities to impress are now.
“We’ve been playing Elbert Mack and E.J. Biggers and Ronde Barber most of the time all year anyway, whether it be in the dime or we are talking about our nickel packages. [Lewis and Gaitor] have been playing so you look forward to those guys stepping up and getting more of a significant role.”
“It means a lot to me because [it’s] been a long season,” Lewis said of seeing increased play. “Not knowing whether you are going to be active and not knowing whether you are going to play [is difficult]. Just to have the opportunity to go out there and play and show everyone that you really can play is a blessing, even though we don’t like that Aqib [Talib] was put on IR.
“But like Raheem [Morris] says, next man up. He always has the utmost confidence in whoever he puts out there so I am happy to have this opportunity.”
Lewis appeared in 10 games as a rookie last season and started against Detroit on Dec. 19. Most of his playing time came late in the year to again make up for the absence of Talib and reviews were generally positive.
“We saw a guy that was thrown out there and made some plays on critical situations,” defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said of Lewis’ contributions last year. “We went all out blitz on the Detroit Lions and in a critical moment of the game [he] knocked a pass down from Calvin Johnson in the end zone. Then he turns around and has some good games against the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints.”
Following the end of 2010 and into this season, Lewis has been hampered by nagging hamstring injuries that have limited his ability to show he should get more snaps. When he has, the outcomes haven’t been nearly as productive as last year. Most notably was Lewis being victimized by an Aaron Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson hookup that resulted in a 40-yard, game-clinching touchdown in Green Bay.
Lake said Lewis has practiced well this week but hinted that the opportunities for everyone to prove their worth are not limitless.
“[Lewis is] going to get his opportunity on Sunday and it’s up to him what he does with it. That’s how it works. If you don’t get it done, [there’s] going to be someone else. If you get it done you are going to be here; same thing with everybody else.”
It’s been difficult to perform consistently while bouncing back and forth from the inactive list and active roster, Lewis said, and he needs to take full advantage of these late-year auditions.
"You know it's definitely going to be hard, but once you get in the groove and get the feel of things [and] get the feel of the game, everything just all comes back," he said. "Just get some repetitions out there, you know, get in the groove and get comfortable. As soon as I get comfortable I know I am going to be the best ballplayer I can be. I just want to go out there and have the opportunity to get comfortable and play enough amounts of plays to get in the groove to show to everyone that I got drafted for a reason and I really can play."