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Corners backed by each other

Whichever Bucs CB gets picked today for the Pro Bowl, Abraham or Barber, he'll think the other was slighted.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


TAMPA -- Bucs cornerbacks Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber won't have to be selected today to play in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii to understand what it's like being left on an island.

Unfortunately, it's been more like the Galapagos than Paradise for Tampa Bay's top pass defenders.

When you consider what the Bucs ask of Abraham and Barber, who are often deserted to shadow receivers with no help behind them, there probably isn't a better tandem of cornerbacks in the NFC, if not the league.

Abraham already has matched his career-best of seven interceptions this season. And his 25 career picks are more than future Hall of Famer Deion Sanders had the first five years of his career.

Barber may only have one pick this year, but he returned it 37 yards for a touchdown against the Jets. He also scored on a recovery of a fumble forced by Abraham and has 51/2 sacks. But what separates the Bucs cornerbacks from the rest is their ability to play the run and tackle. This season, they've combined on 141 stops.

"If I could, I'd vote for them," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "I think the equation that you have to look for is not all the plays that those guys make, but what we ask our corners to do. We ask them not only to cover, but we ask them to do a lot. Ronde does a lot of blitzing, they both have to do a ton of tackling with the Cover 2 that we play. So I think for what we ask our corners to do and for the type of years those guys have had, just making big plays, I think they're both very deserving."

Perhaps no one has been more deserving than Abraham, a church quiet fifth-year pro from East Tennessee State who had seven interceptions last season, not including two in the playoffs.

But if only one of them is selected to the Pro Bowl today, it is likely to be Barber. The twin brother of Giants running back Tiki Barber, Ronde was second to Washington's Champ Bailey in the NFC in fan balloting for the Pro Bowl. At one point Abraham was sixth. Coaches and players also count a third to determine the team and three cornerbacks are picked to each squad.

"Donnie's got to go before I go," said Barber, who seems almost surprised by his ranking among fan votes. "That happens when you've got a twin brother. It brings a lot of attention to your name."

Attention never has come easy for Abraham, who has been overlooked in recognition due to the cast of characters that surround him on defense.

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks and Lynch garner much of the attention. But in many ways, it's Abraham's coverage skills that allow them to roll up big numbers.

"It's always the same reasons," Barber said. "He's quiet. Not flashy. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure he even cares what people think of him. He's definitely a Pro Bowl corner. If anybody deserves to go in the league, it's (Abraham).

"He just seems to be in the right places. And when he gets an opportunity, he catches the ball. He never drops any interceptions. To me, he's a classic interceptor. The ball's coming his way and he gets them. That's what he does."

Abraham spends much of the season fending off questions about his Pro Bowl omissions. In fact, he's almost reached Susan Lucci status when it comes to the game.

But, on this day, he can't help but wonder what it will take for his peers to punch his ticket to Honolulu.

"Of course you think about it sometimes," Abraham said. "One of your personal goals is to make to the Pro Bowl. But I'd be so happy if (Barber) makes it. He better take me with him. At least the corners here would start getting the recognition. We're so overlooked in this defense because we have so many great players."

However, last week's game in Miami might have been a showcase for Barber and Abraham. Barber had four tackles and batted down two passes in the end zone to save touchdowns. Abraham's interception was the fourth of Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler and the most difficult.

"He's playing off (Tony Martin), who gives him an out read," Barber said. "Donnie drops his hips and does a speed turn and makes a great play on it. He basically runs the route for the receiver. It looks incredible on film."

And if the production by Abraham and Barber is not enough, consider the receivers they blanket each week -- the Vikings' Randy Moss and Cris Carter, the Packers' Antonio Freeman, the Bears' Marcus Robinson and the Lions' Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton.

"There's none better. I'm serious. We do everything, man," Barber said. "You look at some of the corners, and I'm not knocking Sam (Madison) and Patrick (Surtain), you put them in off coverage, they can't do it. You put them in zones and they're not comfortable doing it. And we do everything. We bump, play man-to-man, play all the zones, have to tackle. When you look for a couple of complete players at that position, I don't see anybody better than us."

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