CB Ronde Barber's first-quarter interception was his 10th of the season, a new Buccaneer record
Detroit rookie QB Jim McMahon may be having a rough indoctrination to the NFL thanks to the Lions' one-win season, but he can stake one claim that no other QB in the league can make. McMahon played an entire game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without an interception.
Increasingly, it's becoming more difficult to get out of a Buccaneer game without throwing a pick than it is to get out of an NFL broadcast without seeing Carrot Top.
Tampa Bay's pass defense may not be ranked first in the NFL – it was fifth, in fact, before Saturday's tell-tale win over the Baltimore Ravens – but it's hard to imagine a unit that an opposing quarterback would fear more at this point. The Bucs' pass rush (20 sacks in the last six games) and secondary (10 interceptions in the same span) are peaking at the same time, making the airways around Raymond James Stadium a virtual no-fly zone.
Bucs CB Donnie Abraham, the all-time team leader in interceptions with 30, can clearly feel the defense coming together just as the playoff race has reached critical mass.
"The chemistry is there," he said. "We just have to build on it and be patient with it. People doubted us, but we weathered the storm. The rains came, but we hung in there. Now we look like a Monet."
Abraham has had five picks this season, matching his NFL per-season average, to get to that team-record mark, but that's only half of the picks turned in by emerging star Ronde Barber. Barber's 10 interceptions are the most by any player in the league since Mark Carrier had the same number 11 years ago. He got his 10th Saturday night against the Ravens, and linebacker Derrick Brooks followed with his third of the season. Those two picks probably made the difference in a 22-10 decision between two stalwart defenses trading blows.
Last week, the Bucs had four interceptions in building a 30-0 halftime lead and cruising to a 48-21 win over New Orleans. Before those two wins in six games, the Bucs' playoff chances were seriously in doubt. Now they are almost certainly realized. With all due respect to a resurgent offensive line, the Bucs' pass defense has probably played the biggest part in that turnaround.
That was certainly the case Saturday night.
"It seemed like the defense stepped it up big tonight and played tremendously," said QB Brad Johnson, who was not intercepted for the second straight game. "We had good field position and Derrick gave us the touchdown down there. It was a huge momentum swing and we played Buc football tonight. We pride ourselves on turnover ratio."
And well they should. No NFC team, and only Herman Edwards' Jets in the AFC, have a better takeaway-giveaway ratio than the Bucs' plus-17. That's close to a team record – they were plus-18 in 1981 and plus-17 last year – and it's due to an opportunistic secondary more than anything else. Tampa Bay is not likely to match their 1981 team record of 32 interceptions, which is an astounding two per game, but at 26 they are putting together their best pick season since that '81 campaign.
That shouldn't be too surprising, given that four of the top 11 interceptors in team history are on the team right now. In addition to Abraham (1st), Barber (7th) and Brooks (tied for 9th), safety John Lynch is tied for fourth on that chart with 17. Brooks, surely the best pass-defending linebacker in team history, has more interceptions than any 'backer in team history.
On Saturday, he broke up three passes and turned in what most considered the most important play of the game, returning his second-quarter pick 53-yards to within inches of the goal line.
"He really stared down my eyes and I threw it off my back foot," said Ravens QB Elvis Grbac, the latest victim of the Bucs' opportunistic pass defense. "It was just a good play by him. If we didn't have that one mistake, we keep that seven points off the board and we have a chance to do something different in the game."
The Bucs are now within three interceptions of Cleveland's 29 for the league lead, and they can thank the pressure up front for some of those turnovers. Since a slow start, Tampa Bay's pass rush has been one of the most productive in the NFL.
After seven games, the Bucs had just 13 sacks, a number that had many wringing their hands, considering the four number-one draft picks starting along Tampa Bay's defensive line. Then the team exploded for five sacks in a win at Detroit in the eighth game of the season, and it hasn't looked back since. The Bucs haven't been held below three sacks for nine consecutive weeks.
The numbers are adding up so fast, it's almost a shame there's only one game left in the regular season. Then again, the Bucs have virtually assured themselves of a playoff spot, so maybe the pass defense is peaking at just the right time.