Bucs cornering market on impact plays
Cornerback is the supposed weak link of the Bucs defense, the one place where offenses can attack with success. But Donnie Abraham isn't listening to such talk, and Ronde Barber said he's tired of hearing it. "I think the last couple of years people have been undervaluing us," Barber said. "I think when we go out and play hard and opportunities come up, we make plays. If you look at our track record the past three years, we keep making plays. I don't want to hear it at the end of this year."
The value of Barber and Abraham was measured in points Sunday, and in the team's 41-0 rout of Chicago, their first-half turnovers were worth 17.
In addition to 2 1/2 sacks, Barber forced a fumble and returned another fumble 24 yards for a touchdown. Abraham forced the fumble Barber returned, and his two interceptions led to 10 more points and helped the Bucs take a 20-0 first-half lead. "They really have a good team," Abraham said of the Bears. "They've done a great job the last year perfecting their offense. They have a good group of guys, they have good receivers, a good quarterback, but today was just our day."
The first interception was tipped by Warren Sapp before falling into Abraham's hands at the Chicago 31. The second deflected off the hands of running back James Allen at the Bears 20 and Abraham returned the ball to the Chicago 4-yard line. "The pressure up front had a lot to do with it today," Abraham said. "There were a lot of tipped balls and the line was rushing. Any time you can get pressure up front, it definitely helps."
Abraham's interceptions, which led to a 23-yard Martin Gramatica field goal and a 3-yard touchdown run by quarterback Shaun King, were not all that new. He had seven last season and is a good bet to make the Pro Bowl if he maintains this pace. Barber's sacks are entirely different, however. He came into the season with four for his career, but already has 3 1/2. Barber periodically blitzes when the Bucs are in the nickel defense and the strategy worked to perfection Sunday.
On the Bears' first series, he sandwiched Chicago quarterback Cade McNown with defensive end Marcus Jones. On the Bears' second series, he stripped McNown and Shelton Quarles recovered the fumble. And on the Bears' last series, Barber dropped McNown for a game-ending 8- yard loss. At the rate he's going, Barber would obliterate the team's single- season sack record of 13. He's on pace for 28 sacks, 15 more than Lee Roy Selmon in 1977. "He's the sack leader," Abraham said. "You can't really explain it. The smallest guy on the field is running through the line and getting sacks. He had an awesome game."
Barber thinks teams will start to pick him up, and if they don't, he fears one of the defensive linemen will alter his course. "One of those guys may break my legs or something later in the year if it gets close," Barber said.
Barber and Abraham had great games, but defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was quick to point out that third cornerback Brian Kelly (two tackles, two passes defensed) also deserves credit. Kelly pushed Barber for the starting spot in the preseason and Kiffin believes the competition raised the play of all three. John Lynch said it's time the secondary, which has finished second in the league the past two seasons in pass defense, begins to receive acclaim.
"When you have this type of defense, someone is going to get overlooked. All (the cornerbacks) do is make plays. Last couple of years, we've been at the top of the league in touchdowns allowed, and that's a credit to the entire defense but it has a lot to do with those guys. We feel we have the finest secondary in the NFL. Not a lot of people give us that credit. But just look at the numbers."
Ernest Hooper , The St.Petersburg Times 2000