Chris O’Meara/Associated Press file photo
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press file photo
TAMPA, Fla. – Greg Schiano didn’t have to follow the NFL closely over the last decade-plus to keep up with the exploits of Peyton Manning.
Tampa Bay’s first-year head coach was an assistant with the Chicago Bears when Manning began his NFL career in 1998. But while Manning was collecting MVP awards, Schiano was toiling in the college ranks; he spent two years as an assistant at the University of Miami and the next 11 transforming Rutgers into a Big East contender.
Still, even for Schiano – who never paid much attention to the pro game until he returned to the NFL – Manning’s accomplishments with the Indianapolis Colts virtually were impossible not to notice.
Now Manning has his full attention.
The four-time league MVP and the Denver Broncos will face the Buccaneers’ porous pass defense this week. Schiano is doing everything he can to make sure his young, inexperienced secondary is prepared for the challenge.
The Bucs are first in the NFL in run defense but are 32nd against the pass.
“You have to be careful because you can’t try to in four days create a whole new defense so you can confuse him. That won’t work. And probably the fact of the matter is, what you think could be this great idea to confuse him, he saw it about six years ago and then again three years ago,” Schiano said Wednesday.
“We’ve just got to go out and play our defense and play the best we can and know they’re going to make some plays. There’s not anybody in this league who’s kept them from making plays in the passing game. We have to make sure we don’t let them go off in the run game. ... If they can run the ball, it’s going to be a struggle.”
Manning has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 3,260 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions while getting acclimated to a new system and teammates. The Broncos (8-3) have won six in a row after a 2-3 start, and last week’s 17-9 victory at Kansas City moved him ahead of Hall of Famer John Elway for the second-most wins by a starting quarterback in league history.
The Bucs, meanwhile, are trying to remain in playoff contention, despite having a secondary that’s without the starting cornerback Schiano began the season with.
Aqib Talib was suspended four games last month for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances and subsequently traded to the New England Patriots while serving the ban. The NFL took the same action this week against Eric Wright, also for using Adderall without a prescription.
With Talib no longer with the team and Wright – who signed a five-year, $37.5-million contract as a free agent last March – sitting out with an Achilles tendon injury, Tampa Bay started former seventh-round draft pick E.J. Biggers and undrafted rookie free agent Leonard Johnson at cornerback in a 24-23 loss to Atlanta.
Johnson has missed tackles this season on a pair of 80-yard touchdown plays, including Julio Jones’ long catch-and-run for the Falcons.
Biggers has 19 career starts in four seasons, but the departure of Talib and the loss of Wright have stripped the team of much of its depth at cornerback. Recent additions LeQuan Lewis and Danny Gorrer also saw action against Atlanta and figure to get plenty of playing time again Sunday.
“We have some young guys who don’t have much experience, so we’re kind of just playing our hand as we feel best,” Schiano said. “It’s going to be a challenge. But they’re 8-3, so three teams figured out a way to do it. That’s our goal. We’re trying to be the fourth.”
Schiano reiterated that to have any chance of minimizing the damage Manning can inflict through the air, the Bucs have to contain Denver’s running games.
Tampa Bay has allowed a league-low 81.5 yards rushing.
“We’ve got to make sure we stop the run. We know he’s going to make some throws. You’d like them not to be big plays,” Schiano said.
“If you can limit the big plays, they’re going to catch the ball underneath, and we’re going to have to tackle well. When we play man-to-man coverage we’re going to have to be on our guy and try to deny him the ball, and when we have deep safety help we’re going to have to use that help.”
The Bucs are yielding 315.5 yards through the air, yet have managed to win five of seven after a 1-3 start to climb back into playoff contention.
One of the keys to the turnaround has been the defense’s knack for forcing timely turnovers, and the Josh Freeman-led offense’s ability to convert opponent’s mistakes into points.
That’s why Manning said he’s not licking his chops in anticipation of facing what – at least on paper – appears to be an overmatched defensive backfield that also includes rookie Mark Barron and 16-year veteran Ronde Barber at safety.
“Look at the film. Statistics can be very misleading,” Manning said. “I tell you what I see. I see a defense that’s dominant against the run; it has created a lot of turnovers. I think they’re No. 1 in interceptions caused the last four weeks. And what you also see by watching the game film is how their offense is taking those turnovers and turning them into touchdowns.”
Bucs tight end Dallas Clark, a close friend and one of Manning’s favorite targets while they were playing for the Indianapolis Colts, said he’s not surprised by the way the 36-year-old quarterback has played since returning from a neck injury that sidelined Manning all of 2011.
“I would never bet against him on his determination. ... Just being around and seeing all the hard work he’s put in, you knew he was going to surprise a lot of people,” Clark said. “He gave great commitment and dedication to getting back and everything that you have to do to overcome an injury as an athlete.”
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press file photo
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press file photo