CB Ronde Barber scored his 11th regular-season defensive touchdown on Sunday, making him the NFL's active leader in that department
Tampa Bay Buccaneers veteran cornerback Ronde Barber had gone 10 full games in 2008 without an interception.
For the franchise's all-time leader in picks with 35, those 40 quarters, 600 minutes of game clock and 587 defensive snaps must have felt like an eternity.
But as it turned out, it was only a matter of time – 26 minutes and 48 seconds into Sunday's Week 11 contest against the Detroit Lions – before Barber did what he does best, and it was well worth the wait.
In the Bucs' 38-20 come-from-behind win over the Lions Sunday, Barber snagged two interceptions, one of which he returned 65 yards for a touchdown, his first SportsCenter-type splash plays of the season. A cornerback can have a great season without ever getting his hand on an interception, but Barber knows that his career has been defined by big plays.
"When you set a standard, that's what you're held to," Barber said. "I think you're letting yourself down if you don't hold yourself to that standard. When my opportunities come, I know I can make a play and play to my standard. I needed to make a play, and I did today."
Barber's first interception came with 3:12 to go in the second quarter. The Bucs had just scored their second touchdown of the day to cut the Lions' surprising early lead to 17-14.
After Barber and the Bucs defense forced the Lions into a third-and-16 at their own 18, Barber stepped in front of a Daunte Culpepper pass intended for wide receiver Shaun McDonald and wrestled it away, securing an interception that gave the Bucs the ball deep in Lions territory. That first turnover of the day for Tampa Bay would be turned into seven more points on the very next play.
"The first one was third-and-long, third-and-15 and Daunte tried to throw a blind option route and I was playing a spot-two zone on the outside and he just threw it right to me and I just had to catch it," Barber said. "I almost probably could have scored on that one too if I'd have kept my feet."
Barber was able to keep his feet and reach pay dirt on his next interception, which came with 9:14 to go in the third quarter. Barber jumped an out route intended once again for McDonald and was able to outmaneuver Culpepper, the last Lions defender, on his way to the end zone for a 65-yard score. The play pushed the Bucs' string of unanswered points to 35 and extended their lead to 35-17. The pick itself was vintage Barber, all hands as he leapt in front of McDonald – think the darting pick in the 2002 NFC Championship Game – and nimble feet on the sideline as he stayed in bounds and scooted down the field for the score.
"The second one was just a three-step out and I got a great read on him, saw McDonald put his foot in the ground and I just reacted faster than he did," Barber said. "All I had to do was stay inbounds and make a guy miss.
A mass of players was closing in on the right sideline as Barber ran upfield, but he managed to dance his way through.
"The speed is still there," the 12th-year veteran joked. "I still got a little Tiki Barber in me."
Sunday's performance marked the sixth multi-interception day of Barber's career, and his return for a score was the 11th defensive touchdown of his career in the regular season, which places Barber first among active players and third in NFL history.
After the game, Barber reflected for a moment on the big plays that have come to define him throughout his career and how satisfying it was to finally get back in that column in 2008.
"It's been a part of my career, no doubt about it," Barber said. "Unfortunately it might be a bit to my detriment; it's what people expect out of me, so when it doesn't happen, everything that I'm doing gets magnified in probably a negative light. But such is the case, and nothing will ever affect the way I do my job, whether I'm successful or not successful. I understand what [Head Coach] Jon [Gruden] wants from me. I understand what [Defensive Coordinator] Monte [Kiffin] wants from me and I'm always on notice."
Perhaps the most rewarding part of Sunday's game for Barber was that it turned around what had been a frustrating individual season – but only by his very high standards, of course.
"I've given up three uncharacteristic plays and that's not what I expect of myself or probably what they expect of me," Barber said. "I've struggled to find opportunities this year. I haven't had a lot of factor opportunities. The few that I've had, I haven't made the play, so to speak. It's what I do every week. [Defensive Backs Coach] Raheem [Morris] puts us in position. The opportunities are out there – do your job and you're going to get your chance. I had my chance today.
"But the old cliché is that they come in bunches. You can't go out searching for those opportunities – they come to you. You just have to take advantage of them when they do and I took advantage of them today."
A two-interception day with a touchdown to boot may silence any doubters who were beginning to wonder if Barber's best days were behind him. But much like fellow veteran Derrick Brooks has continued to amaze in the later stages of his career, the Bucs' reliable corner hasn't let any whispers of doubt affect him.
"It's common banter," Barber said. "It is what it is. It's convenient to say, but it's not necessarily always the case. There comes a time in everybody's career where they just can't do it anymore. My time is not right now and it's not that time for Derrick either. Whereas our situations may change here, we still know we can do our job. As long as we can make plays like I did today and Derrick made last week, those questions go away.
"Doubt creeps into everybody's mind. I won't pretend that it doesn't. But I'm a positive guy. It's nice to be surrounded by positive people and we are here. All the negativity goes away when positive things start happening."
Gruden certainly has full faith in Barber and was glad to see a big day from his veteran corner.
"It was huge," Gruden said. "He is a great player and is a clutch performer. I don't know where the whispers are coming from, but we have said all along that he is a big reason we are here. He is a big reason we have a chance. To get your playmakers to make the big plays when you need them the most, that is good for your football team and that is healthy for us. We are really happy for Ronde and he played great today. He showed some speed on the return."
Added Brooks: "That's good to see, man, really good to see. He's been faced with some criticism, but today for him to step up and provide the spark plays for us on defense is, again, an attribute to him and I can't be any prouder. Ronde is a standup man and answering the critics."
And as the Bucs prepare for a critical three-game stretch against NFC South opponents that will probably sort out the division title race, Barber is hoping to keep the positives rolling.
Asked if days like Sunday ever got old, Barber couldn't help but laugh. Never content – even after his two-pick performance in Detroit – Barber knows his team will need even more big plays if it wants to claim a second-straight NFC South title and reach its ultimate goal.
"Of course not – I wanted three," Barber said with a grin. "I'm greedy sometimes. It's just our mentality. It's got to be our mentality. Jon demands it of us. He wants scores, he wants turnovers and he knows how it wins football games for us. It defined us in '02 when we won our Super Bowl and it is going to continue to define us."