Ronde Barber has played in 216 regular-season NFL games, so there's very little on any given Sunday that surprises him from whistle to whistle.
And, indeed, even on a night in which he managed to find a brand new way to pad his Hall of Fame-worthy career statistics, Barber was left thinking more about the things that have become painfully familiar this season.
Barber's Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped a 24-18 decision to the Chicago Bears on Sunday at London's Wembley Stadium, rallying late but ultimately falling short after digging a 21-5 hole. Even with the loss, the Bucs are 4-3 and just one game out of first place in the NFC South, and their next game (after a bye) is against the first-place New Orleans Saints. Tampa Bay beat the Saints, 26-20, one day before flying over to London, so they have little doubt they can compete in the NFL's most competitive division.
However, Barber knows the Buccaneers have a thing or two to correct if they are to continue to compete with the Saints, the 4-3 Atlanta Falcons and the suddenly very frisky 2-5 Carolina Panthers. At the top of that list is one of the four factors of success on the gridiron that Head Coach Raheem Morris repeatedly stresses: consistent play.
"There's obviously concern," said Barber. "Raheem talks about us being a consistent team. We play physical, smart, but consistency has been an issue for us all season. We've found ways to overcome it. It's a credit to our adversity. I was just talking to somebody about having that chance to win at the end. If you win the game at the end, if Josh [Freeman] goes down and scores the touchdown, we win by one, it hides what went on early in the football game."
Barber helped put the Bucs in position to steal the game at the end. After Freeman had thrown his second touchdown pass of the fourth quarter to pull Tampa Bay within three points, one in a long line of big plays by Bears running back Matt Forte helped Chicago get inside the Bucs' five with four minutes to play. A touchdown would put Tampa Bay down by two scores and essentially salt the game away, so the Bucs' defense needed to hold the Bears to a field goal. After two incomplete passes, Barber timed an inside blitz perfectly and shot through a gap between the center and the right guard so quickly that he was able to drop Jay Cutler before the Bears quarterback could even drop back into the pocket.
It was an amazing play, though not exactly unexpected from Barber. It was, impressively, the 27th sack of Barber's career. He is the only cornerback in NFL history with 25 sacks and 40 interceptions and he now has at least one sack in 13 of his 15 seasons. This one was important because it appeared as if it had left Freeman and the Bucs' offense with 3:40 or so on the clock to mount a final comeback.
However, cornerback Aqib Talib was flagged for a personal foul after going face to face with wide receiver Roy Williams after the play and reportedly grabbing Williams' facemask. It's safe to say that some of the Buccaneers didn't agree with the call, but Morris refused to make excuses after the game. Referring to all of the night's mistakes, not just that costly penalty, Morris referred to his team's play as young and foolish. It is an issue he will address in the next two weeks before the Bucs head to New Orleans.
"One of my players makes that kind of mistake, I hold myself accountable," said Morris. "He certainly helped us go out there and stop them. He certainly ate up the clock."
Impressively, the Bucs' defense overcame that bit of adversity, too, once again stopping the Bears on three plays from inside the five. Chicago did eventually have to settle for Robbie Gould's 25-yard field goal, but unfortunately the extra set of downs allowed the clock to run down to just under the two minute warning. That put Freeman and company in a tough position, and even though they were able to drive down to Chicago's 39 but the stress of a disappearing clock helped contribute to a game-clinching interception by D.J. Moore.
Barber, who had five tackles, two stops for loss and three pass breakups on the night, was at least pleased that the Bucs' defense stood up when it absolutely had to.
"You always try to find a positive out of games like this," said the well-heeled vet. "I guess giving ourselves a chance at the end of the game to win it, giving our offense that opportunity, holding them to three points, we still had a chance to win. It was about the best thing we did all day. Obviously it didn't end the way we wanted it to with the interception, but we gave ourselves a chance."
The sack of Cutler may or may not have been Barber's biggest play of the night. In the first quarter, with the Bucs' offense struggling and Forte giving Chicago all the momentum, Barber turned a potentially disappointing moment into the Bucs' first points. After Tanard Jackson's interception and return to the Chicago 12, a Freeman pass to the goal line went through Mike Williams' hands and ended up in the clutches of Bears safety Chris Conte. On the very next play, however, Barber crowded the right edge of the Bears' line, slipped around a block and had the end sealed when Forte tried to run that way. Barber's incursion allowed the rest of the Bucs' defense to show up and they kept the Bears back from getting out of the end zone. The safety gave Tampa Bay two points and the ball back on the next possession.
It was, almost surprisingly, the first safety of Barber's career. It was certainly not Barber's first time denting the scoreboard; he is the franchise's all-time leader with 13 non-offensive touchdowns. He almost made it 14 early in the second quarter when he jumped into the lane of Cutler's attempted third-down slant to Devin Hester. Barber timed his move perfectly and got his hands on the ball, with a clear, short lane to the end zone in front of him, but he wasn't able to haul it in. Barber was clearly frustrated after that moment, but it was still a fine defensive play that ended a Chicago drive.
After the game, it was the other sorts of mistakes, the ones that sustained Chicago drives and killed those mounted by the Bucs, that weighed more on his mind. Like Morris, Barber thinks it will be an issue that is front and center during the bye week.
"It's even more frustrating inside the locker room after the game when that happens," he said. "Whatever it is, we got to find the answer and correct it. We got a bye week to do that. Hopefully come back a better football team after these 10 days."