|Barber all over the field for Bucs
By Len Pasquarelli
PHILADELPHIA -- Sometimes, as Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber demonstrated here Sunday during a 27-10 victory in the NFC championship game, the numbers do lie.
Just a year after he snagged 10 interceptions to top the NFL in that category, Barber recorded only two thefts in 2002, and there were some loud whispers that the six-year veteran was hardly the same player in coverage. It mattered little that Barber enjoyed another outstanding all-around season, because the casual observers scrutinized only his interception total, and that was down by a whopping 80 percent.
In addition to the pickoff, Barber had 3 other passes defensed, to go with 3 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
"I know people look at the interceptions, but I like to think I'm a complete (cornerback), a guy who can do a lot of things," said Barber, pausing during an emotional discussion with younger brother (by seven minutes) Tiki, the New York Giants star tailback. "So my 'picks' were down this year. I felt like I covered every bit as well as last year, maybe better, but interceptions just didn't come. I didn't think anything of it."
In a secondary where strong safety John Lynch is viewed as the high-profile playmaker, and where fellow cornerback Brian Kelly had 8 interceptions this season, Barber is too often overlooked. One network analyst Saturday night here identified the four stars of the Tampa Bay defense -- end Simeon Rice, tackle Warren Sapp, weak-side linebacker Derrick Brooks and Lynch -- and completely ignored Barber.
But as a veteran who has worked hard to make himself a better player, who fits well into the Tampa Bay "Cover 2" scheme and the Bucs philosophy, Barber has become a stalwart performer.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Tampa Bay coordinator Monte Kiffin used the mostly-zone coverages to hide Barber's deficiencies. That is not the case anymore, as Barber has emerged as a strong "Cover 1" player, and Kiffin has expanded the man-to-man package to take full advantage of his burgeoning abilities.
Notable is that, even as Barber has worked hard on coverage techniques, he has not dropped off in other areas. Barber remains a terrific performer in run support, and has averaged 89.3 tackles since becoming a full-time starter in 1999, including 90-plus tackles in each of the last three years. Over the last five seasons, his 13½ sacks are the most for any cornerback, and he posted 3 quarterback kills in 2002.
In two postseason contests this year, he has 2 interceptions, and another was called back. But talk to his teammates, and they suggest that Barber is happiest when allowed by Kiffin to blitz off the edge, to get a clear shot at the opposition quarterback.
"When they call the (cornerback) 'fire' blitz, he gets this big look in his eyes, like he thinks he's a linebacker or something," said Kelly. "He's got such a great sense of timing on the blitz. He never gives it away, never tips it off, and he loves to get in his licks on the quarterback."
He scuttled the Eagles' first offensive sequence of the second half Sunday, sprinting in from the right side of the defense, deking past the tailback, and forcing the fumble as he sacked Donovan McNabb for a 5-yard loss. And then, fittingly, he snuffed out Philadelphia's last-gasp drive, coming under slot receiver Antonio Freeman to steal away McNabb's pass on a slant route and then cavorting 92 yards up the right sideline for the touchdown.
"Just good (video) study," Barber said. "You know that, when they have the ball close to the end zone in that situation, they throw the slant almost every time. I was just waiting for it."
Fact is, Barber was in the right place at the right time so often on Sunday, a few Philadelphia players suggested he must have been in their huddle. But it was the Eagles who often played into Barber's hands, quite literally on that final interception, by allowing him to roam the middle of the secondary.
Barber was aligned against the slot receiver almost the entire game, giving him some freedom between the hashes, and Philadelphia spent about 60 percent of the contest with three or more receivers on the field. What they did not do was get the ball enough to Freeman to make him a factor in the game, and so Barber frequently abandoned the slot man, and freelanced a little more than he normally might.
By unofficial count, he was the closest secondary player on three passes where he didn't get his hand on the ball, but where he forced McNabb to throw errantly. He also contained the sweep on at least three rushes where he forced the Philadelphia runners to turn back inside.
It was, Kiffin noted, one of the most outstanding games the veteran coach had witnessed by a defensive back in a postseason contest.
"He was," Kiffin said, "everywhere out there. Everybody is talking about this cloning stuff. It's like we had 11 of him on the field."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.