Once Again, Barber Puts Up Points
Ronde Barber can take interview requests now. Tampa Bay's Pro Bowl cornerback gently waved off inquiries last week, telling reporters he hadn't done anything worth talking about.

That all changed in an instant during Sunday's 31-7 rout of the punchless Falcons at the Georgia Dome when Barber scored his 11th career touchdown, including playoffs, returning a fumble by quarterback Byron Leftwich 41 yards in the second quarter.

"If I'm drafting a team, I want Mr. Playmaker - I'm glad he's on our side," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said of Barber, who also made a critical third-quarter stop against former teammate Warrick Dunn on fourth-and-inches near midfield. "All I know is I wouldn't trade Ronde for anyone in the world."

Defensive end Greg White, a terror all afternoon with two sacks and two forced fumbles, stripped Leftwich from behind as he tried to step up in the pocket and the ball bounced into the eager hands of Barber, who wasn't tackled until teammate Cato June mauled him in the end zone.

"Score or get the ball back ... that's what good secondaries do," said Barber, who later bounced Dunn out of bounds a yard short of the first-down marker when Atlanta inexplicably tried to run wide left with the Bucs nursing a 14-0 advantage. "Fourth-down stops are huge. I hate to hit my guy Dunn like that, but it's part of my job."

Barber and White had plenty of help as the Bucs limited the Falcons to eight first downs and 142 yards while building a 24-0 lead through three quarters. Hovan and middle linebacker Barrett Ruud each intercepted Leftwich, who was sacked three times and blitzed extensively to capitalize on his slow release.

June led Tampa Bay with nine stops and forced a fumble, while Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks always seemed to be around the ball. Only a late 82-yard drive engineered by Joey Harrington padded Atlanta's numbers as the Falcons barely avoided their first home shutout loss since 1994.

"The last time we were in the Georgia Dome, we were embarrassed," Brooks said, referring to a 14-3 setback in Week 2 last year, when the Bucs yielded a franchise-record 306 yards rushing. "I know I sound like a broken record, but when we win the turnover battle, we usually win the game."

In posting their most lopsided win since blanking Atlanta 27-0 three years ago at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs didn't allow a run longer than 7 yards and forced six first-half punts.

"We had a great game plan with the extra week to prepare and this defense is playing well together," said cornerback Brian Kelly, referring to the bye week. "It's a road win in our division, but we've got a lot more to prove."

The Bucs hadn't won so thoroughly on the road in more than five years and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin couldn't stop lauding team chemistry and the impact of newcomers such as June and defensive end Kevin Carter.

"We wanted to control the running game and put it in the hands of their quarterback," Carter said after Leftwich posted a 32.7 rating against the NFC's No. 1 pass defense. "Things rolled our way today and Ronde always seems to be in the right place. But don't forget, luck has a way of favoring those who are prepared."

With the Bucs suddenly blessed with a two-game lead atop the crumbling NFC South, Kiffin and Coach Jon Gruden will continue to lean on a swarming defense to spearhead a late-season drive toward a third division title in six years. "Now, it's on us," Ruud said. "It's all in our control. If something bad happens, the only people to blame will be ourselves."

Ira Kaufman, The Tampa Tribune 19 November 2007