TAMPA — Rookie running back Doug Martin has been a star, rushing his way through the record books.
Rookie linebacker Lavonte David has been one of the Bucs' most consistent defensive players, turning into a tackling machine.
But there are games, such as Sunday's against the Falcons and their future Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez, that highlight why the Bucs took safety Mark Barron seventh overall in April's draft.
Barron, a 6-foot-1, 213-pound thumper, is providing the physical presence and run-stopping ability the Bucs saw from him while he was at Alabama. But Tampa Bay also believed Barron's size, height and athleticism would make him invaluable against a league filled with physically gifted tight ends.
And Gonzalez, 36, might be as good as they get.
"It's another big test this week for Mark, for sure," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "One of the big things we really loved was the way Mark run-supported in college. In our division, having to defend these great tight ends, Mark would be a great matchup. I think he has been. He needs to play really well."
Barron has made mistakes with the Bucs. At times he has relied too much on his athleticism, and he needs to make better decisions in pass coverage.
Barron said he enjoys the challenge of facing the seemingly ageless Gonzalez, a 6-5, 247-pounder who has a team-high 64 receptions. Only Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice (1,549) has more career catches than Gonzalez (1,213), in his 16th season. "I'm honestly surprised he's still performing at the level that he is," Barron said. "He's still performing at a high level. I've got to make sure I prepare well."
Barron made a splash in his debut, Week 1 against Carolina, limiting tight end Greg Olsen to six catches for 56 yards and delivering a huge hit on veteran receiver Steve Smith. A few weeks later against Washington, a blitzing Barron body slammed touted rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III for a sack.
"Mark is a silent killer," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He doesn't do too much talking, but when he hits you, you know it. He hits you and looks at you like, 'That's what I do.' "
It seems like each week Barron and the Bucs must contend with a gifted tight end. The must face in their division Olsen, Gonzalez and the Saints' Jimmy Graham, not to mention nondivision matchups against the Cowboys' Jason Witten and the Chargers' Antonio Gates.
Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said Barron made necessary adjustments after the 34-24 win over San Diego on Nov. 11 and carried them over into the Carolina game last weekend. Though Barron did get called for pass interference in the end zone, Sheridan said it wasn't indicative of his performance in the 27-21 overtime win.
"I think he played all right," Sheridan said. "Like a lot of our guys, Mark's a developing player. He's getting better every single week. Some of the things we emphasized coming off the San Diego game — keeping depth in his coverages, because if you don't get the depth, you risk getting the ball thrown past you — we asked him to do a better job with, and he did that."
Barron also has earned the praise of opposing coaches.
"Mark is an impact player," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "He's a guy you can put close to the line of scrimmage and he feels comfortable. But at the same time, he can match up with those displaced tight ends. I've been very impressed with him."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]