Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Cut Above

CB Ronde Barber is making big plays at the rate that made his 1998 season special

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CB Ronde Barber returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown against the Jets

Is it possible for one man to be a team's breakthrough player twice?

You wouldn't think so, but that seems to be the position CB Ronde Barber is in. Here's the distinction, possibly: In 1998, Barber was the out-of-nowhere player that made a big impact in Tampa Bay Buccaneer circles. This season, Barber's breaking out for the whole NFL to see.

The Buccaneers actually had high hopes for Barber in 1997, when they drafted him out of Virginia in the third round. After seeing CB Donnie Abraham blossom as a rookie third-rounder in 1996, Tampa Bay dreamed of a repeat with Barber and a stellar pair of bookend corners.

And they got that, but not right away. Barber played in just one regular-season game as a rookie and didn't make too much of an impression in that brief action. However, after picking up playing time in the '97 playoffs, Barber came into 1998 as the designated nickel back. With injuries plaguing both Abraham and fellow starter Anthony Parker, Barber actually made nine starts on one side or the other.

More than that, he made big plays. He led all the Bucs' corners with 68 tackles and paced the team with 17 passes defensed while also recording three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. And, whether it was a return of a deflected punt for a touchdown at Chicago or a fourth-quarter forced fumble against the Packers that led to the clinching TD, Barber was constantly at the center of game-turning moments.

By the big-play standards that he set in '98, Barber's '99 was quiet. He started 15 games and had a career-high 74 tackles plus two more interceptions, but the Bucs' big plays on defense came mostly from other parties. It was by no means a downward turn in his career, but the unspectacular followup to his breakthrough 1998 allowed observers to wonder about his hold on the right cornerback job.

After all, a second-round pick, CB Brian Kelly, was waiting in the wings and playing well in nickel packages. Kelly, in fact, took over one of the outside corner slots during nickel alignments while Barber shifted into the slot. There was talk in training camp that Barber and Kelly were in competition for the right cornerback job, though, tellingly, the team never said so.

That would appear to be a moot issue at this point. The Bucs' defense is excelling with Abraham, Barber and Kelly all playing extensively. Kelly has, in fact, rotated in to Barber's spot, but the Bucs have played quite a bit of nickel defense this year with their frequent second-half leads, and there's enough snaps for everyone.

It is Barber, however, that has done the most with those snaps so far. On Sunday against the Jets, he gave the Bucs what appeared to be the game-winning score when he returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown. On the play, which gave Tampa Bay a 17-6 lead, Barber gave WR Dedric Ward a bump as Ward put a quick inside move on him. Ward then went back toward the sideline, where QB Vinny Testaverde tried to deliver him the ball. However, Barber read the play perfectly and jumped Testaverde's toss, picking it off on a full sprint and running untouched to the end zone.

That play, and another pass breakup later, gives Barber a rather impressive statistics line for the 2000 season, only four games old: 3.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, four passes defensed and two touchdowns. So far, Barber has outscored Warrick Dunn, Keyshawn Johnson, Jacquez Green and Dave Moore.

Two weeks ago, the former Cavalier All-American earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors when he pounded the Bears to the tune of 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown. Barber also had a sack on a blitz at New England (September 3) and narrowly missed several others against QB Drew Bledsoe.

Though Barber modestly claimed after the Bears game that he was 'a product of the scheme' run by Bucs' Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, there's no denying that he has developed a penchant for game-turning plays. He is, for instance, the first Buccaneer since linebacker Richard Wood in 1977 to score on both a fumble return and an interception return in the same season. The only other player in team history to have touchdowns of three different varieties is CB Ricky Reynolds, who scored on fumble, interception and blocked-punt returns.

Tampa Bay defenders are fond of saying that any player on their unit can be the one that comes up big each week. It's funny, though, that the smallest player on that crew, the 5-9 Barber, is the one coming up big most often.

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