Teammates know they can count on CB Ronde Barber to make big plays in crunch time
Ronde Barber has a name for December: The Money Month. Believe it or not, despite the fact that he has a wife and two little girls, Barber's not talking about holiday shopping.
The National Football League just entered its Money Month; that is, the month in which big-time players earn their keep with big-time plays. Even if one only considers teams that are currently .500 or better, there are still 17 serious competitors for the league title. By the end of the month, that will be whittled to 12 playoff teams, it will be two Super Bowl teams a month later and eventually one big winner. That team will be the one that makes the most game-changing plays down the stretch.
On Sunday in Baton Rouge, Barber was one of the league's most "money" players of the first weekend of December. He intercepted New Orleans Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks three times and had his hands on a fourth pick that eventually went to teammate Dexter Jackson. Barber's last interception, at the Bucs' goal line with 80 seconds to play, ended a frightening Saints scoring threat and sealed a 10-3 win that pushed the Buccaneers to 8-4.
"[Defensive Backs Coach] Mike Tomlin talks about it every year," said Barber. "When we get to December, I need you playing your best ball, I need you having your best games. We can't have mental lapses, we can't have mistakes. At this point of the year, everybody that has a chance at the postseason is looking to be a championship team. You've got to be able to make plays in December. We made a bunch of them today."
Barber, of course, is the author of the most famous "money" play in franchise history, his 92-yard interception return for a touchdown at Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. That pick also sealed a Buccaneer win and propelled them to the Super Bowl. His three interceptions on Sunday gave him 27 on his career and made him the only player in franchise history with that many picks in one game. He previously set the record four years ago against the same team and same quarterback, though in Tampa.
Barber needs just one more interception to tie for third place on the Bucs' career list in that category, but he'd already be knotted with former cornerback Mike Washington if he had held onto a Kyle Orton pass last Sunday. Barber's dropped interception chance against the Bears might was a critical moment in the team's 13-10 loss, and it stuck with him. His INT windfall at Tiger Stadium helped ease the sting.
"You know, you get very few opportunities to make big plays in football games," he said. "The one last week was one that will stay on my mind even after the three-pick day today. It was an opportunity early in that football game against Chicago to really set the tone and change probably the outcome of that game. I was disappointed for a long time after that. But it's good to have something to fall back on in this game, to show that I can still catch the football."
It also gave him a way to answer the needling he had been getting from his head coach all week. Barber said that Gruden made a point of reminding him of the Chicago play, sometimes elbowing him in the ribs as the two passed in the hallway and asking, "Catch a ball for me this week?" Barber wasn't offended because he knows Gruden tends to demand more of the men he thinks are his big-time players.
"Gruden is good at that," said Barber. "He expects big things out of everybody. He doesn't really like the perception that we can't do everything right. That was one thing that I personally did wrong last week, so yeah, he got on my a bunch.
"That's just how Jon works. He's not so overt with it; it's just subtle little things. He has a high expectation level for his team. He's a great coach and he expects a lot out of everybody, especially his big players, and I think he thinks that I'm one of those guys."
Indeed, Gruden has praised Barber as one of the greatest players he's ever coached on more than one occasion. He knows the big-play cornerback was a huge part of the team's championship drive in 2002. He also knows Barber can take the ribbing and maybe even give a little of it back. Barber had a few comebacks for Gruden on the sideline on Sunday after his first two picks of the day.
"I think Jon gives me some leeway to do that with him, get in his face and tell him how it is," said Barber. "But it's all in good fun. I told him not to mess with me anymore. It's a serious business for him and a serious business for me. I know what he expects out of me; I probably expect more out of myself. So we had some fun when I got my hand on some footballs and actually held onto them."
Barber's first pick ended in a Saints scoring threat that had reached the Bucs' 20 during a scoreless first quarter. The throw was about to cross behind him when Barber reached back with his left hand and snared it one-handed. He returned that one 42 yards to the Saints' 42, but the Bucs didn't capitalize. A quarter later, Barber stayed right on tight end Zachary Hilton's hip and intercepted a well-thrown ball down the left numbers. This time, the turnover led to the Bucs' only touchdown drive.
Finally, Barber's last pick came when he was put in man-to-man coverage on elite receiver Joe Horn. The Bucs blitzed and Horn ran straight up the right seam, with Barber keeping a close shadow. Brooks felt his throw was good and Horn tried to decoy Barber away from thinking the ball was coming, but Barber turned at just the right moment and got his hands up in time for the game-saving pick.
The Bucs had played a lay-back, two-deep zone for the first 10 snaps of the drive, which started at the Saints' 20 with four minutes to play, but Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin called a blitz on this play, first and 15 from the 25. It was exact same blitz, Barber said, as the one that produced a Michael Vick fumble late in the Bucs' win at Atlanta two weeks ago.
"I actually didn't see him throw it," said Barber. "I was playing man, had my back to him, and I turned around and looked for the ball and it was right there. It was just a matter of holding onto it."
Barber was in the slot on that play in the Bucs' nickel package, as he was on all three of his interceptions. He is very dangerous in that position, especially when rushing the passer, but he sometimes doesn't have a lot of balls thrown his way while covering the slot. Sunday, he did, and he made the Saints pay with money plays.
Actually, they were literally money plays, as well. Barber had previously pledged to donate specific sums of money to the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts for every "big play" he made against the Saints in two games this year. He estimates that his three interceptions and eight tackles will lead to a donation of about $9,000.
It could have been more, had he come out of the scrum with Jackson with the ball. That would have given Barber the first four-pick game in franchise history. It didn't matter as far as the team was concerned, however, and Barber wasn't trying to be greedy. After all, he got his, and then some.
"They just told me that they sent it to the league to make sure it wasn't a pick and a fumble," he laughed. "No, I think Dexter wasn't on the board this year so I'll graciously give that one up to him."