Money Man Cashes In
The Bucs didn't need a fourth-quarter comeback from their offense Sunday. What they needed was a fourth-quarter stand from their defense. Given a choice, they'll take the latter every time, especially at this time of year. December is the NFL's "money month," in which "money players" are expected to play great. Or, the way Bucs money man Ronde Barber played against the Saints.

On a day when the Bucs' offense struggled to reach the end zone, Barber made sure the Saints didn't get there either by picking off three passes, two in the red zone, during a 10-3 Tampa Bay victory. "We talk about it all the time," Barber said. "This is the time of year when you have to play your best ball, because this is the time of year when championships are won and decided."

Sunday's victory didn't decide anything, but it did improve the Bucs' record to 8-4, putting them in second place in the NFC South and atop a wild-card race that is growing more contentious each week. Minnesota, once given up for dead, is suddenly in the picture now with a 7-5 record. Atlanta (7-5), which the Bucs must play again, and Dallas (7-5) are in the chase, too.

Sunday's game, which was played in front of a mostly absent announced crowd of 34,411 at LSU's Tiger Stadium, was filled with missed opportunities for both teams. After Barber recorded his first pick of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks late in the first quarter, New Orleans defensive end Darren Howard blocked a Todd France field goal try to keep the game scoreless. In the third quarter, on a third-and-2 play from the New Orleans 27, quarterback Chris Simms took a sack that knocked the Bucs out of field goal range. There was also a 41-yard pass play to Aaron Stecker in which Barber missed an opportunity to take Stecker down well before he reached the first-down marker.

And then there were all those third-down conversions. The Bucs have had trouble getting opponents off the field on third down this year, and this game was no different. At one point the Saints had converted seven of 11 third-down tries, and when the day was done they had converted nine of 16. That 54 percent conversion rate allowed the Saints to move into scoring position on five occasions, but with Barber's three interceptions and Dexter Jackson picking off another, all but one chance went unrealized. "We moved the ball well, we just didn't score enough," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "We had a 10-minute drive and a 15-play drive, and we got nothing out of it."

The Bucs didn't get a whole lot out of their offense, either. The Saints (3-9) actually outgained them by 31 yards, 279-248, but they made just enough big plays to gain an early edge they never lost. The biggest of those plays was a Simms throw to Joey Galloway, who turned a quick slant route into a 30-yard touchdown by sprinting past cornerback Fakhir Brown and to the end zone midway through the second quarter. "I thought Chris Simms showed great poise there," Jon Gruden said. "They went to five defensive linemen at times and they came after him with a blitz there, and he threw it right to Joey."

The Saints cut into that lead on their next series when John Carney kicked a 26-yard field goal, but the Bucs got those points back early in the fourth when France made good on a 28-yard attempt. In between, the Bucs ran the ball well (133 yards rushing and 4.4 yards per carry), but they struggled to convert their own third downs, finishing the day with a 33-percent conversion mark.

"It just seemed like we couldn't get the big plays today," said rookie running back Cadillac Williams, who ran 22 times for 96 yards and caught two passes for 19 yards. "But [thankfully] the defense did. I mean, we've had to be the comeback kids the last couple of weeks, so it was nice to be in a situation where we didn't have to do that, and we could watch the defense close it out for us."

The Bucs' defense has long had a reputation for doing that. Still, Sunday's game represented something of a step back in time for Barber. The last time he picked off three passes was against the Saints in December 2001. "They have three players on their defense that aren't just good, they're great," Haslett said. "That's Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice, and [Sunday] they played great."

Just like the calendar says they should.

Roy Cummings , The Tampa Tribune 5 December 2005