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Backs earning rave reviews

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


PONTIAC, Mich. -- When the conversation is about the defense, they are secondary.

Cornerbacks Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber do not receive the attention of the perennial Pro Bowl players, but they make just as many big plays.

Last week's 41-0 rout was a showcase for the defensive backs. Barber won NFC defensive player of the week honors for his 21/2 sack performance against the Bears in which he forced one fumble and returned another for a touchdown.

Abraham intercepted two passes and forced the fumble that Barber took the distance. A year ago, Abraham tied for the NFC lead in interceptions with seven. He is on his way to duplicating those numbers.

But both will have trouble pulling votes for the Pro Bowl because of the Bucs' defensive scheme that requires them to play more zone coverage than man-to-man.

"They work their tails off and a lot of times they don't get the credit like other secondaries," defensive backs coach Herman Edwards said. "We don't have the quote-unquote big-name guys. We don't have Deion Sanders and all those guys. We have Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks and obviously John Lynch, but sometimes the corners get a little overlooked. But in our system, they're asked to do a lot. They're asked to be tacklers first and then great zone guys that can read the quarterback as well as the receivers."

The Bucs will have a decision to make on Barber after the season and he is making it tough.

Barber will be an unrestricted free agent and likely will test the market. The Bucs think they are covered with Brian Kelly, a second-round pick in '98 who Barber held off in training camp.

"It's too early for me to start talking about (a new contract)," Barber said. "I've only had one good game and while all things are possible, I'll let that work itself out. There are different risks you take when you wait it out until the end of the year. I guess that's the difference between guys who want to wait until free agency and guys who don't want that risk and prefer to get it done early. I deal with that when it rises. Right now, it's not rising."

BARBER SHOP DUO: The Bears will be seeing double when Tiki Barber comes to town today.

While cornerback Ronde was cutting up the Bears with five tackles, running back Tiki was gaining 93 yards in 11 carries for the Giants, including a 31-yard touchdown run against the Eagles.

Tiki has 240 yards on 24 carries in two games and 78- and 31-yard touchdown runs on a team whose leading rusher in 1999 totaled 348 yards.

Said Tiki on a national conference call Wednesday: "We (twin Ronde) always competed against each other for success. If he did something good, I could not let him outdo me. I had to do something good. I thought I was doing good things leading the league in rushing, but he's leading in sacks, so I can't get away from his success."

BIG PROBLEM: The Bucs have long had matchup problems with the Lions defense, but Detroit's offense presents a sizeable challenge, too.

With the addition of some large offensive linemen, like 380-pound right tackle Aaron Gibson, the Lions own a size advantage on the small but quick Bucs defensive line.

"It depends on how the game turns out," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "If they run the ball 45 times and can run it in the fourth quarter and control the clock, I would think it would be an advantage for them. If we can get ahead of them where they've got to throw and catch up, we'd like to think it would be an advantage for us."

At 380 pounds, can Gibson move?

"He doesn't have to move far," Dungy said.

SAY WHAT?: The Bucs recognize the problems noise can create at the Silverdome, but two players are not exactly intimidated by the deafening cheers. Guard Frank Middleton said it's easy to understand why the noise doesn't bother him.

"My problem is I don't listen anyway because I'm too busy talking, so I won't have a problem with the noise."

Middleton, however, complimented Lions fans on their zeal: "Whatever they do, whatever their crowd does -- drink before the game -- they do a great job of doing it because they're loud the whole game. You can be winning by 70, and they'll still be loud. They just have great fan support."

Receiver Keyshawn Johnson was with the Jets when they had a memorable game at the Silverdome in 1997, but he doesn't recall being overwhelmed by the catcalls.

"I just play football. It doesn't bother me. I don't know what has happened here in the past about going up there and playing in domed stadiums. I've had success in some domes.

"For me, all I do is look at the football (on the snap). Once it moves and everybody moves, I move. Outside of that, I don't look at it being too noisy. For me that's fun. Scream."

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