TAMPA — Ronde Barber has long been a defensive back of all trades, equally skilled in pass coverage and as a dead-in-your-tracks tackler. But lately the 36-year-old veteran has been popping up like a weed all over the football field.
On any given series, Barber may line up outside the numbers on a receiver, move inside at nickel back, morph into a linebacker and patrol close to the line of scrimmage, blitz the A-gap or drop back into a free safety position.
Nearly halfway through his 15th season, Barber is playing as well as he did in the prime of his career, if not better. One example: In the Bucs' 24-18 loss to the Bears in London on Oct. 23, Barber was one dropped "pick six" away from filling nearly every defensive category. As it was, he recorded his first career safety, a sack, five tackles, three tackles for losses and a pass defensed.
"I told him if he makes that interception and returns it for a touchdown, he goes to the Pro Bowl on that game," defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. "How many cornerbacks have safeties? It's really unbelievable what he's doing."
Barber has posted some Hall of Fame numbers in his career, but his worth to the defense has always been greater than the arithmetic. When he made the decision to return for another season, coach Raheem Morris figured he would have to come up with something more challenging to stimulate the five-time Pro Bowl cornerback.
"He has the ability to flop with safeties and flop with linebackers, and they can do it on their own," Morris said. "We give him some keys on that to keep his old butt stimulated, and he's absolutely taken that and run with it. I think he's getting younger because of it. He seems to be playing faster, he comes to work with a sense of urgency with what we're putting in, finding out what can he do this week, how can he affect the game."
Barber smiled when asked if he likes being a defensive chameleon.
"It's a great way for me to stay involved, stay active, keep me interested," he said. "But because of my ability to move around, we can do a lot of things on defense. We can get six (defensive backs) on the field and feel comfortable running our normal packages. And there's stuff in nickel I've been doing for years. It keeps them off-balance a little bit, and if they're looking at me, that's a good thing, because I show up a lot of different places."
The only player comparable to Barber in terms of his versatility is Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, the 2009 defensive player of the year. Woodson has 27 forced fumbles and 52 career interceptions in his career. Barber (41 picks, 13 forced fumbles) has 27 sacks, the most of any defensive back.
Barber's ability to anticipate where the ball is going to be thrown based on formation and receiver splits will keep the head of this week's opposing quarterback, the Saints' Drew Brees, on a swivel.
Saints coach Sean Payton said play-callers have to account for the whereabouts of a Barber or Woodson.
"Ronde has got great instincts, so you've got to be very careful you don't sit in some easily recognizable looks for him because he will have seen the tape; he does a great job with his keys," Payton said. " … I think that element for him and for Woodson as well gives them some staying power and allows them to play longer in their careers than maybe the average player."
Woodson is 6 feet, 200 pounds while Barber is (generously) listed at 5-10, 184. Playing near the line of scrimmage doesn't intimidate Barber.
"I like that aspect of football, mainly because they don't expect me to be able to do it," he said. "I don't know if that works to my advantage or not. If they're looking for me, it gets me killed sometimes. But that's part of it."