By RICK BROWN Lakeland Ledger Staff Writer TAMPA — Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships – or so the saying goes.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used to take this motto to heart, using defense to turn a once downtrodden franchise into a perennial contender and eventual Super Bowl winner.
Cornerback Ronde Barber was around when the Bucs’ defense was as feared as any unit ever.
He also has seen the pendulum swing back to when the Tampa Bay defense was as inviting to an opposing team as a McDonald’s to a busload of kids.
But Barber thinks this team has the players to restore the legacy of its glory days – a fast, punishing defense that is feared by all.
“We were young back then, and we were good,” Barber said confidently of the 1997 Bucs defense. “We were young and exciting. We had four or five second-year players that kind of took off in (Derrick) Brooks, (Warren) Sapp, Donnie Abraham, Marcus Jones and some of those guys.
“We’re kind of right there again,” he said. “I would like to think we can find the same kind of success.”
Those are lofty expectations, but if anyone can see the similarities, it’s Barber.
When he entered the league in 1997, the Bucs were two years removed from having the 27th-ranked defense in the NFL.
Although Barber played just two games in 1997, Tampa Bay’s defense shot up to No. 3 in the league.
After that, the Bucs spent the next nine years in the top 10 of total defense. Twice (in 2002 and 2005), the Bucs had the league’s top-ranked defense.
Tampa Bay made a name for itself by running a variation of the cover-2 defense. The defensive linemen would only have one gap to control, which allowed the linebackers to flow freely to the ball. The secondary had zones to cover, which was tailor-made for a small corner with above average but not great speed. Barber, however, had great instincts that allowed him to be in the right place at the right time more times than not.
Last year, the Bucs went away from the Tampa-2 after the team purged itself of many veterans.
It was baptism by fire for the unit, which had four first-time starters with three years’ experience or less. This led to the younger guys having to learn on the fly. Understandably, the defense fell to 27th in the league and the defensive coordinator was fired midseason.
Head coach Raheem Morris, who took over the defensive duties, returned the team to the Tampa-2 defense, and the unit showed drastic improvement during the final six games of the 2009 season.
Barber thinks the success of those final six games can carry over to 2010.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be those guys,” he said of the 1997 team. “We want to get to that level though. That was a team that was composed of a bunch of guys that got it. They understood their roles on the defense. They knew what, at that time, Tony (Dungy) and Monte (Kiffin) expected of them. If we get that out of this group, we’ll be fine.”
And in the middle of it will be a third-round pick who some thought would turn out to be a bust.
Five Pro Bowls later and the team’s all-time leader in interceptions, Barber is leading the way on and off the field.
“I still love this game,” he said. “I love being able to compete. I still have the ability. Raheem thinks I still have the ability. I think I can give a lot to these young guys.
“I’m one of the last holdovers, that’s been around long enough to know what it was like when we were a dominant team,” he said. “That’s a benefit.”
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