TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — As usual, Ronde Barber tried to deflect attention from himself.
Tampa Bay’s five-time Pro Bowl selection insists he’s approaching his 200th consecutive NFL start as if it’s just another game. Yet he concedes Sunday’s season opener against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers is anything but that for the Buccaneers, who’ll be making their debut under coach Greg Schiano.
Newton threw for a rookie-record 4,051 yards, while also setting a league single-season mark for touchdowns rushing by a quarterback in 2011, when the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner raised the standard by which defenses measure themselves. He torched the Bucs with four TDs passing and four more on the ground in two games between the NFC South rivals.
The Bucs have an up-and-coming young quarterback of their own in Josh Freeman and have given him some nice new tools to work with in his fourth season.
But in Barber’s mind, Tampa Bay will always be a defensive team, and it’s important to set the tone for what he expects to be a successful season. The 37-year-old is making the transition from cornerback to safety in his 16th season, and says Newton presents a unique challenge for an overhauled defense that wants to redeem itself after yielding a league-high and franchise-record 494 points in 2011.
Newton beat Tampa Bay 38-19 at Raymond James Stadium and 48-16 in the second meeting in Charlotte.
“Last year was last year. I’ve forgotten about it. … It has no — and when I say no, I mean absolutely no — bearing on this football team,” Barber said, adding that the Bucs have bought into a new defensive system similar to the one Schiano used to transform Rutgers into a Big East contender over the past 11 seasons.
“It’s a completely different scheme. … We have different ways we’re going to play Cam, different ways we’re going to play every situation that they beat us with last year,” Barber added. “We’re looking forward to it. … It’s a good start for us. We can judge ourselves on how we play against him.”
Newton enters his second season determined to build on his record-breaking success and help Carolina, 6-10 a year ago, get over the hump and back to the playoffs.
“I’m about doing whatever is needed to win football games,” said the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder whom the Bucs say possesses such a unique skill set as a runner and passer that it’s virtually impossible to shut him down completely.
“Literally, when he has the ball, you’re playing against another running back. He’s that athletic and that good, which really screws up your math. And defense is all math. It’s getting your troops deployed where the fight is going on,” Schiano said.
“It really messes up all your rules, and assumptions have to be tweaked. You tweak your rules and assumptions to stop the run, and then you have a guy who’s a very potent passer, that’s what makes him as dangerous as he is.”
Tampa Bay was 4-12 last season, finishing on a 10-game losing streak that included the pair of lopsided losses to the Panthers.
A year after throwing for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions and helping the Bucs win 10 games in his first year as a full-time starter, Freeman took a step back while tossing 16 TD and. 22 interceptions.
The Bucs have surrounded the 24-year-old Freeman with more talent, signing All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, three-time 1,000-yard receiver Vincent Jackson and former Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark in free agency. They drafted running back Doug Martin in hopes of easing some of the burden on Freeman.
In addition to Barber changing positions, there are four new starters on defense, including safety Mark Barron, the seventh pick in the draft, and linebacker Lavonte David, a second-round pick.
“It’s a good football team. You can’t overlook the talent,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “This team can have a resurgence very quickly. I don’t take them lightly, we don’t take them lightly. They’re a year removed from having a chance to be in the playoffs.”
Tampa Bay narrowly missed earning a playoff berth in 2010 and got off to a 4-2 start before falling apart last season. The defense finished 30th in yards allowed and ranked last against the run and in sacks, deficiencies especially glaring in the quarterback-driven NFC South, which also features Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.
Former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan was hired as offensive coordinator and has worked with Freeman on his decision-making in the pocket. Quarterbacks coach Ron Turner focused on 6-6, 240-pound Freeman’s footwork, and both feel he’s prepared to have a bounce-back year.
“There is a resolve, a determination to put himself in a position to be the type of player he wants to be,” Sullivan said, noting that Freeman shed 20 pounds and spent countless hours on his own watching film during the offseason.
“There’s been a progression we’ve seen in practice from a confidence level and execution level and leadership level that we’re pleased with,” Sullivan said. “Preseason is always hard to gauge because we, as well as other teams, are working on various aspects of the game, so you can’t really measure it. But we’re pleased at where he’s at and looking forward to seeing what he does on Sunday.”
Barber’s streak of 199 consecutive starts is the longest by a cornerback in NFL history. His first start as a safety will extend the longest playing streak among active players.
“To me, it’s just another start. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do this for a long time,” the only player remaining from 2002, when the Bucs won their only Super Bowl title.
“I’ve got an organization that’s believed in me for 14 years, or however many years that streak is over, so it’s a little bit of an honor. … I’ve been fortunate not to be hurt, certainly, but I don’t believe in luck,” he added. “I’m a guy who takes care of the things I need to take care of and prepare myself every week.”