Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber is closing in on one of the most unique NFL records of all time. With just two sacks this season, Barber will become the first cornerback in NFL history to record 20 interceptions and 20 quarterback takedowns.
The Pro Bowl defender enters the 2005 campaign with exactly 23 career interceptions and 18 sacks throughout the regular season, and stands a good chance of making NFL history on Sunday at Minnesota. The Vikings would be a fitting opponent to establish a league record for interceptions and sacks due to the fact that Barber has sacked Minnesota quarterbacks more than any other teams' quarterbacks throughout his nine years in pro football.
Of his 18 career quarterback captures, six have come against the Vikings and three have been versus Daunte Culpepper, whom Barber has sacked more than any other passer.
The amazing part of this march towards history is not the amount of interceptions Barber has gathered throughout his Buccaneers career. Cornerbacks are expected to pick off passes, as interceptions are generally -and perhaps misguidedly - the measurable statistic for determining the league's best defensive backs.
But cornerbacks aren't supposed to be pass rushers - unless they possess Barber's uncanny instincts and ability to sack the quarterback.
"This defense has allowed me to do a lot of things like rush the passer," Barber said. "When I first started playing it was one of things that I did really well. I haven't been as successful as I was in 2000 when I had 5.5 sacks, but it's a weapon for us as a team. I've done well and the stats built up."
Barber has racked up the sacks playing the slot corner in Tampa Bay's nickel defense. By moving him inside on obvious passing downs, Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin positions Barber in a spot where he can cover a slot receiver or easily blitz the quarterback.
"He's got special traits," Kiffin said. "That's why he's such a good nickel corner. We call him a nickel corner because he plays inside on the slots, but he's just like a linebacker. We take out our Sam (strongside) 'backer and put him in as our Sam 'backer. That's what he is. He can play man-to-man in the slot, too, or he can play all the zones like a linebacker like [Derrick] Brooks and [Shelton] Quarles."
Tampa Bay defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said that the Bucs have been wise to take advantage of his blitzing skills over the years.
"The talents he displays as a pass rusher are natural," Tomlin said. "That's probably why we put him in position as much as we do. We realize that he has a natural knack for it. It's probably not even a second thought to him. That's just what he does. He does whatever we ask him to do to win.
"It's not only the ability to cover or blitz off the edge. The nickel corner has to have linebacker-like instincts because, essentially, that's what they play. It's obvious that he's a little linebacker. He has linebacker-type awareness. The toughness is a prerequisite, but the awareness and the instincts that he has is unique."
To put his 18 sacks in perspective, Barber needs just two sacks to surpass Chicago Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary, who accumulated 19 sacks over his 12-year NFL career. Even Brooks, Barber's teammate and a future Hall of Famer himself, has just 10.5 career sacks in his 10 years in pro football.
Should he get four sacks this season, Barber will tie John Cannon for 10th place on the Buccaneers' all-time sack list.
Barber is taken aback with the notion that by the time his playing days are over in the NFL, he will have more sacks than some of the game's best linebackers.
"I know that sounds weird," Barber said. "It's just something that I've developed into a forte. The coaches know that. I think they realize it's something they can rely on and I think you'll see a lot more of that this year."
Perhaps the greatest example of Barber's ability to be a dual-threat cornerback was his performance against Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. Barber sacked Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb on a nickel blitz just before halftime and forced a fumble. Late in the fourth quarter with Philadelphia trailing Tampa Bay, but driving on offense, Barber showed blitz off the edge and tricked McNabb into throwing an interception by dropping into coverage at the snap of the ball and picking off a slant intended for Antonio Freeman. Ninety-two yards later, Barber was in the end zone and the Buccaneers were Super Bowl bound.
"We brought a lot of pressure that game and a lot of nickel blitzes," Barber said. "The one time McNabb thought we were going to bring it - although I can't ever remember us bringing a nickel blitz down in the red zone, I guess he didn't know that - we didn't, and it worked and it set up a pretty big play for us in terms of closing out that game. I also had a sack-fumble earlier in that game and Ellis recovered. That was a pretty well-rounded example of what I do."
Tomlin was impressed by the fact that Barber had actually beaten a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle in Tra Thomas for the sack earlier in the 2002 NFC Championship Game.
"He had gotten a sack-fumble off that look early in the game, so they had to acknowledge his presence," Tomlin said. "I think he had beaten Tra Thomas on the edge. It was the exact same situation (in the fourth quarter). He came down, gave Tra a little look, Donovan recognized it, then he popped out and got the pick."
Does any particular sack standout in Barber's mind?
"Any one where I beat somebody stands out," Barber said. "The lay-ups - the ones that open up like the parting of the Red Sea and you just hit a quarterback like Cade McNown - those are stupid. I had one last year where I beat the tackle of the 49ers (Kwame Harris), who was supposed to be a good young player, those are the memorable ones.
"Culpepper and Drew Bledsoe are the most significant big guys I've ever brought down. I brought down Drew one time and he had his hand in my face. That was the toughest tackle I've ever had in my life."
Ask Barber about his favorite interception and a big smile emerges.
"It's hard to top that Philly one, and that one doesn't even count because it was in the playoffs," Barber said. "In the regular season - the one against Green Bay during the Super Bowl year when I broke my thumb the week before. That was a good one."
With a more experienced Torrie Cox and newly acquired veteran Juran Bolden representing an upgrade over Mario Edwards as Tampa Bay's third corner, Barber expects to get even more opportunities to blitz quarterbacks this year. Barber had three sacks a year ago, and could have a chance to surpass his mark of 5.5 sacks from 2000 that represent a career high.
"He's a special guy now," Kiffin said of Barber. "You've watched this kid's career. He's a playmaker. He makes plays. He doesn't just rush - he gets sacks. He doesn't just cover - he gets the picks, too. He doesn't miss the opportunity when it's there very often."
Barber's first career sack came against quarterback Randall Cunningham November 1, 1998 in Tampa Bay's 27-24 upset win over Minnesota that would prove to be the Vikings' only regular season defeat that season. Nine years later, Barber could make NFL history on Sunday by getting two sacks of another Minnesota quarterback.
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