Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Pair of Aces

Tampa Bay’s underrated cornerback duo of Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber has a nose for the big play

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CB Donnie Abraham is one of the top three interceptors in Buccaneer history

On Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-ranked pass defense gave up 302 net passing yards, and will almost certainly drop in the NFL rankings.

Don't be fooled.

The Buccaneers' secondary had an outstanding game on Sunday and was once again led by Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber, perhaps the most underrated pair of cornerbacks in the National Football League.

As effective as Tampa Bay's pass-first, run-second offensive game plan was against the Vikings, the defense's efforts to quell the big play were equally well-executed. Early in the first period, on the fourth play from scrimmage, Minnesota attempted to go deep on a post over the middle to WR Randy Moss, but S Damien Robinson came across to break the pass up and nearly intercept it. That would be the last time in the entire game that the Vikings would throw a bomb.

That is largely because Tampa Bay continually blitzed QB Daunte Culpepper, sacrificing short passes underneath to get the ball out of Culpepper's hand quickly. Even when they weren't blitzing, the Bucs were allowing short dumpoffs and relying on their tackling ability and occasionally rushing the quick pass to break it up. Thanks to excellent execution, particularly by Abraham and Barber, the plan worked, as Minnesota scored just one touchdown and 13 points.

The Vikings weren't exulting over their 300 passing yards after the game.

"It's hard," said Moss. "We put in a lot of preparation for these guys. We really thought we had a good game plan against their defense. We just couldn't put anything together."

Added Culpepper: "They bring it every game. They put the offense in a bad position all the time. You have to give them credit. They got it done."

Abraham and Barber played different roles in the plan, with Abraham generally clamping down on receivers and Barber often joining in the pass rush. The results: Abraham led the team with 11 tackles, added his fourth interception of the season and broke up six passes; Barber had yet another sack to raise his season total to 5.5 and finished second to Abraham with eight stops.

As a whole, Tampa Bay snared two interceptions off Culpepper (LB Derrick Brooks returned a pick 34 yards for a touchdown), but it could have been more. There were four other occasions were the ball was nearly redirected by Buccaneer defenders, including a deflected pass in the third quarter that Abraham nearly hauled in and a short completion in the fourth quarter that just zipped past Barber into the receivers' hands.

The numbers that this duo is putting up for the season are fantastic. Ask yourself, would you like a pair of cornerbacks that, over the course of a season, would combine for these numbers:

· 178 tackles · 10 interceptions · 11 sacks · 32 passes defensed · 4 forced fumbles · 2 fumble recoveries · 6 touchdowns

Of course you would. As recently as 1995, the Buccaneers didn't have two players of any position that combined for 10 interceptions and 11 sacks. Abraham and Barber aren't there yet, of course, but their play is so consistent that those numbers are reasonable considerations.

And that is made doubly impressive by the fact that Buccaneer cornerbacks are asked to do so much in Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin's schemes. Abraham and Barber play crucial roles in the run defense and are much more involved in tackling than many NFL cornerbacks. Yet they are also considered a prime source of turnovers and they are often left on an island by the team's zone blitzing.

Of course, recognition is starting to come their way, so maybe Abraham and Barber won't remain underrated for long. There was Pro-Bowl buzz around Abraham last year, when he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions and added 74 tackles and a remarkable 31 passes defensed. Barber, meanwhile, has regained the 'big-play' reputation he forged in 1998 and might be the most effective defensive-back blitzer the league has seen in years.

It is certainly difficult to remain unnoticed when you help your squad beat the NFL's only unbeaten team by four touchdowns. The Vikings' 300-yard passing game might mask the stellar job that Abraham, Barber and the rest of the Bucs' secondary did, but the scoreboard tells the full story.

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