CB Ronde Barber has drawn league-wide attention for his interceptions this season, but he has been a big-time all-around producer for the Bucs for years
It's a look you could only show once a season, according to Tony Dungy.
Obviously, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to make it count.
Six minutes into the second quarter at Paul Brown Stadium last Sunday, with the Buccaneers trailing Cincinnati, 3-0, the Bengals lined up to punt from their own 29. Tampa Bay's punt-return unit countered with a common formation, with eight men on the line of scrimmage and one cover man on each of the Bengal 'forcers,' split out near the sidelines.
However, in a somewhat risky maneuver that left the right forcer wide open and with a free lane to the return man, the Bucs brought their cover man in to the right edge of the Bengals' protection and, at the snap, sent him blitzing at the punter.
Tampa Bay had one chance to get it right. The man they chose to execute the play was cornerback Ronde Barber.
Is there any Buccaneer who has consistently made more out of his opportunities than Barber?
Back to the Bengals' punt. Though he had to dance for a few seconds as Cincy delayed its snap, Barber timed his rush well, zipped right around the outside man and blocked Nick Harris' punt. The loose ball was returned 11 yards for a touchdown by tight end Todd Yoder.
So add that to Barber's growing list of big plays, then try to make sense of the numbers. At a superficial glance, his five-year career with the Buccaneers has been a strange ramble through the stats page, a periodic gorging on one category or another. In 1998, Barber started only nine games but posted 17 passes defensed and 68 tackles, most among Buc defensive backs. In 2000, he had a freakish 5.5 sacks to go with 97 tackles and 20 passes defensed.
This season, Barber, who had six career interceptions before 2001, is tied for fourth in the NFC with six more picks.
He's had 10 tackles in a game five times, unheard of for a cornerback. He had five passes defensed in a single afternoon against Dallas last year. He's had a pair of two-interception efforts this year and a game in which he didn't record a single tackle but knocked down four passes.
This is not streakiness. This is opportunity, and the ability to seize it. The next target of Barber's carpe diem approach may be a ticket to the 2002 Pro Bowl.
You see, Barber has filled in the last hole on his resume, and fans are taking notice, as evidenced by the most recently compiled on-line Pro Bowl balloting numbers. Barber, who has yet to make the February trip to Hawaii, currently is running third in the NFC voting at his position, behind Carolina's Doug Evans and the New York Giants Jason Sehorn, and three corners go to the game from each conference. While Barber has been an integral part of the Bucs' high-profile defense for years, he has only recently made his own national name with a splurge of interceptions.
"He had a good year last year, a very good year," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy, "but when you get interceptions and blocked punts and plays that show up on the highlight tapes, that seems to help you. He's certainly had his share of big plays."
Yes, but now they're coming on interceptions, instead of sacks, forced fumbles, key tackles, blocked punts, touchdowns in three different manners – you name it. It was no secret that his bulging stat table was thin on the glamour category for defensive backs, and he went into the season looking to do something about that.
Which is all fine and dandy, but getting picks isn't just a matter of desire, or even talent. One season's league-leading interceptor is often buried on the chart the next year. San Francisco's Lance Schulters went to the Pro Bowl in 1999 after a six-interception season, then had none last year. Detroit's Kurt Schulz, formerly of Buffalo, yo-yoed from two picks in 1997 to six in '98, three in '99 and seven in 2000.
So why the sudden onslaught of interceptions for Barber? Opportunity.
"It's what this defense has let me do, really," he said. "I'm a lot more involved in the passing defense now than I have been in the past. I'm playing a lot more man-to-man and not blitzing as much, though recently we're getting back into the blitzing game. Earlier in the year, I was in coverage more and I had more opportunities. The more opportunities you have, logically, the more chances you're going to have to get your hands on the ball."
Though he has been the full-time starter at right cornerback since the second half of 1998, Barber has always played the nickel back position for the Bucs' defense when they bring in a third cornerback. That puts him over the slot man in a three or four-wide alignment, and also places him near the middle of the field and, often, in the middle of the action.
"You have opportunities to make not only interceptions but all kinds of plays – tackles in the backfield, third-down stops, passes defended," said Barber. "I like to think of it as the 'hot zone,' because that's where the play is centered. You usually have your best receivers inside on third down, the running game comes through you, so I'm in position a lot. That's why I say this defense allows me to do a lot and that's why you're seeing more stats."
Previously, that same position netted him more sacks than picks because the team preferred to use Barber to get pressure on the quarterback. This season, the Bucs put an increased emphasis on stopping the run early in the year, which necessitated an eighth defender closer to the line of scrimmage. The Bucs' corners were then asked to play a lot more man-to-man defense than they had in the past, and Barber has seen much more coverage than blitzing.
In a nutshell, that is why Barber's interception opportunities have decreased, and why he has 'just' one sack this season. Still, with that opportunity came risk, and the Bucs were definitely going to find out in 2001 if the cornerback they re-signed to a new, six-year contract in the spring could play on an island.
"I guess you could look at it that way, but in reality, I was the only one of the three corners who hadn't been in that situation a lot, because we play so much zone," said Barber. "Because we're playing more man this year, I'm in the same situation inside that Donnie and BK have been on the outside."
And it's paying off. Barber is still fourth on the team with 65 tackles and first with 17 passes defensed, but he has been a major reason that the Bucs are leading the NFC with a plus-14 turnover ratio. Each of his five NFL seasons has been better than the one before, and this time, he gives a large portion of the credit for his improvement to new Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin's intense attention to detail has helped keep Barber in position to make plays by honing his technique to the point that it comes naturally. Tomlin calls them EDDs – every day drills – and Barber has really embraced the approach. Tomlin's style in this matter may be a little more hands-on than the one taken by Tomlin's predecessor, the well-respected Herman Edwards, who led the Bucs to four straight top-10 finishes (1996-99) in pass defense before leaving to become the Jets' head coach.
"It's a lot of different little things," Barber explained. "It's not that Herm didn't do them when he was here, it's just that Mike really emphasizes them. A lot of it is footwork stuff, being consistent in your backpedal, working on your bump-and-run stance – things that will put you in position to make plays.
"I think back to the Detroit game and I probably had my best game as far as shuffling with receivers, getting my hands on receivers and making plays. I had a big game that week, and it was because of those little things. With Mike, we do them every single day. We even come out during walk-throughs and do them."
Barber intercepted two of Charlie Batch's passes in that November 11 contest, including a diving pick deep downfield in the fourth quarter of a narrow, 20-17 Buc victory. He was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his troubles and he collected his own personal career highlight on that acrobatic interception of a pass intended for former Buc Bert Emanuel.
"He came up on the line and I bumped him and was in good position," said Barber. "He started to get away from me on the inside, and I saw Charlie getting ready to throw it and I said, 'You know what, I can make a play underneath this guy.' I went ahead and took that chance – if you take that chance, you better make the play."
The Bucs have counted on Barber to make big plays for the last four years. Easy-going and quick to smile off the field, he burns with an intense desire to win between the stripes and that shows up in a wide variety of ways, only some of which are reflected on the stats page. How many times has an opposing running back or kickoff return man appeared to have a clear shot to the end zone on a breakaway only to have Barber outrace the rest of the pursuers and catch him from behind?
"I think that's just me getting ticked off when somebody breaks out against us," he said with a laugh. "I can't stand somebody just walking into the end zone on us. It's happened probably four or five times. I don't know, it's just will I guess. I'm trying to impose my will on some people and that's just one of the ways that it happens."
The will of the voters will be released soon, when the fan portion of the Pro Bowl balloting closes. Those results will then be combined, as an equal third, with composite ballots by each team's players and each team's coaches. Some of the members of the Bucs' ninth-ranked defense will predictably – and deservedly – show up prominently in the voting.
Will Barber? Despite his inflated interceptions total, the former Virginia star knows that it can be difficult to break through to the Pro Bowl the first time, particularly when your team already sends a hefty contingent of defenders.
"Look at Donnie (Abraham)," said Barber. "How high a level did he play at for years, getting interceptions? It took him, what, three or four years before he even got the recognition? I think people finally said, 'This guy can't be overlooked anymore,' and he got to go. On a team where you've got four guys on just the defense that are going, let alone three or four guys on offense that go every year, it's definitely hard. But you've got to make a name for yourself somehow and they'll start taking notice eventually."
Clearly, that process has already begun for Barber, judging by the league's latest tally of votes. He'll need support from his peers as well, but that battle may already be won.
"By now, I think people have figured it out," said Barber. "Mike (Tomlin) and I talk a lot, and he said a couple guys around the league called him early in the year and said, 'Ronde had a good game, man, he's playing at a high level.'
"Mike said, 'I don't know how long it's going to take for them to realize that you play like that every week, so just keep showing them.' I think it's starting to rear its head now."