Barber's early dagger
It was gone in 60 seconds. The we'll-show-him attitude. The defiance. All of it. That's all the time it took Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber to rip the Falcons' collective hearts from their chests. One minute into a game the Falcons had to search for the motivation to play, Barber's interception and touchdown return brought them back to their ugly reality.
"They've been dealing with so much adversity," Barber said of the Falcons, a team that in consecutive days saw its franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, sentenced to nearly two years in federal prison and its coach, Bobby Petrino, announce his shocking resignation. "They're a broken team, and their record (3-11) doesn't help. We didn't want to help them get back on track in any way. We're trying to win a championship. That's more important than anything."
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin stressed to his unit all week that starting fast and forcefully against a team as emotional as the Falcons was imperative. Then Barber went out, read Chris Redman's actions precisely and went 29 yards for six pivotal points. "They were fired up because I think they wanted to go out and prove to their former coach that they could win without him," Kiffin said. "So, the players were going to play hard. But that certainly didn't help when we jump out to a start like that."
Barber's touchdown gave him 10 on fumble and interception returns combined, tied for third most in NFL history. Only Rod Woodson (13) and Aeneas Williams (12) have more.
And Barber's interception was the first of four turnovers Tampa Bay forced in its 37-3 rout. This comes after the Falcons committed five turnovers Nov. 18 in Atlanta, a game the Bucs won 31-7. They now have 31 takeaways and a plus-14 turnover margin - fourth best in the NFL.
Sunday's game, in which the Bucs scored 20 points off turnovers, was the eighth this season in which Tampa Bay forced multiple turnovers. Greg White forced and recovered a fumble from Falcons running back Warrick Dunn. Gaines Adams swooped in to swat a ball out of Redman's hand on another occasion. Safety Jermaine Phillips added another interception. Somehow, the turnovers seem to come in bunches with this bunch.
"What happens is when you put yourself in a position where you're ahead in games, you put teams in predictable situations," Barber said. "You're just teeing off on the opponent. That lends itself to sacks and fumbles. When you're ahead, their demeanor changes. Like the play to Jermaine, (Redman) just forced that ball in there."
There's something else at work, too. "We practice it, and me and Gaines work good together," White said of forcing turnovers. "It's just hustling and being aware of what's going on. There's no magic. It's going hard after the ball."
Turnovers are like a religion with this team. The message is preached, stressed and reinforced constantly. The defense has a saying that puts it all into context:
"It's about being in that place where preparation and opportunity meet," Phillips said. "When you're there, you make plays."
Stephen F Holder, The St.Petersburg Times, 17 December 2007