Amazingly, CB Ronde Barber posted 2.5 sacks of QB Cade McNown on Sunday
Last week, when LB Derrick Brooks was awarded NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, he said: "I think if someone can win that award every week from this ballclub, that means we're playing very good football on defense."
Well, it's week two now, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have not one but two prime candidates for that award. Without sweeping the rest of the NFL action on Sunday, it's hard to imagine anyone having a more impactful performance than Buccaneer CB Donnie Abraham, unless it's Buccaneer CB Ronde Barber.
Abraham and Barber put on a show Sunday in the Buccaneers' startling 41-0 liquidation of the Chicago Bears. The Bucs' defense, considered by many to be the best in the NFL, is generally led from the trenches, where the team's stellar defensive line forces the action. While that group was strong again this Sunday, the Bucs' shutout effort against the Bears truly began on the corners.
Consider their raw statistics. Abraham, already third on the Bucs' all-time interceptions list, picked off the 19th and 20th passes of his career, returning one of them 18 yards to the Bears' four-yard line to set up a Tampa Bay touchdown. Abraham also forced a fumble that led to another touchdown, deflected three passes and made three unassisted tackles.
Barber, meanwhile, was the player that scooped up the fumble caused by Abraham and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown, the second score of his four-year career. Barber also had – and this is not a misprint – 2.5 sacks to go with a forced fumble of his own and five tackles.
That kind of sack total, you would think, could go to the head of a 5-10, 185-pound cornerback. Barber, however, was on an even keel after the game, crediting the Bucs' defensive system with the results.
"We try to be special by being fundamentally sound," he said. "Donnie's a great player. He had a down week last Sunday, but you can't keep a great player down."
Barber, who is clearly emerging as an expert blitzer, had four sacks in the last two seasons and now has gotten to the opposing quarterback two games in a row. The last defensive back to make headlines for his growing sack totals was another great blitzer, Green Bay S LeRoy Butler. Barber, however, isn't looking that far ahead.
"We're just going to play game-to-game and week-to-week. If we keep that attitude, we'll keep a lot of teams off the scoreboard. Right now, we are a scary offense and our defense is playing great. That makes for a lethal combination."
Particularly when the turnovers come on the opponent's side of the field. After combining with Marcus Jones on a sack in which he blitzed up the middle in the first quarter, Barber got his second sack shooting around the right tackle and approaching QB Cade McNown from the lefty's blind side.
When he arrived unannounced, McNown dropped the ball and LB Shelton Quarles recovered at the Bears' 45. Though the Bucs failed to turn that takeaway into a score, they did get a field goal try out of it, which Martin Gramatica pushed just wide right from 50 yards out. Tampa Bay did, however, convert its other three takeaways, all in Chicago's zone, into scores.
Barber also sacked McNown on the last play of the game, putting a fitting punctuation mark on a simply unbelievable effort. It was Barber and Abraham's day to shine, but they think the mantle could pass on to yet another defender next week.
"We just play hard and fortunately the turnovers we're going to come to us," said Abraham. "If you have 11 guys going in there saying, 'I've got to make a play,' then nine times out of 10, one of us is going to make the play. That's what we have – 11 guys saying, 'I've got to make a play.'"
Abraham knows, of course, that there are days in which the duo will play just as well but receive much less of the attention. He and Barber are among the best tackling corners in the game, a fact seen against St. Louis in last year's NFC Championship Game and replayed again today against a screen-happy Bears offense. That those two are out there, providing tight coverage and also keeping short passes or running back sweeps from turning into long gains, is a comforting feeling for those aforementioned guys in the trenches.
"We tried to keep the running backs from going up the middle," said DT Warren Sapp, who had one sack of his own. "Once we accomplished that, we knew that Donnie or Ronde would get them. It was our first shutout in a few years, and it was a good feeling knowing that the whole team was involved."
Those are words every player on the Bucs' defense would echo. Still, it's a little nicer when you're the one stepping into the end zone or redirecting passes. "I'll take the opportunities I can get," said Barber. "It's a good feeling. If you go out there and play hard, the opportunities will come up. I was just in the right place at the right time. Donnie keeps on making plays – interceptions, he causes fumbles. It's a great feeling to get in the end zone – it doesn't happen often on defense."
Neither do Player of the Week awards. Or do they? We'll find out on Wednesday.