Bucs young DBs set to be tested by Peyton Manning

Greg Schiano didn’t have to follow the NFL closely over the past
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 were virtually impossible not to
notice.

Now Manning has his full attention.

The four-time league MVP and the Denver Broncos 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,” the coach
added. ”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 straight following 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 trade 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 as a free agent last March, sitting out
with an Achilles tendon injury, Tampa Bay started former
seventh-round draft 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 and 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 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 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 win five of seven following 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.”