OAKLAND, Calif. – Ronde Barber and Carson Palmer spent years in the NFL mastering familiar systems that helped them excel at their crafts.
Coaching changes in Tampa Bay and Oakland this offseason led to new roles for the two veterans that both feel have energized their careers.
After a bit of an early learning period, the two stars have regained that comfort level heading into Sunday's meeting in Oakland between Barber's Buccaneers (3-4) and Palmer's Raiders (3-4).
"I looked at it as a challenge, especially some of the new terminology," Barber said. "But it was a fun thing to do, though. It took some time, obviously. I didn't pick it up the first week. ... But it was something that I looked forward to and really tried to embrace. I think that attitude kind of helped me make the transition a little easier."
Barber has moved from cornerback in a defense that almost always featured two deep safeties that had become a staple for years in Tampa to safety in a more varied approach under new coach Greg Schiano.
With three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, a sack, a forced fumble and eight passes defensed the 37-year-old Barber has helped improve one of the league's worst defenses a year ago.
"He absolutely flashes on film," Palmer said. "He makes plays, he's great in coverage. He makes a couple of unbelievable interceptions off tipped balls. He'll come up and tackle Adrian Peterson and stuff him. He's everywhere. He makes plays. He's playing as good a football as I've seen him play."
Palmer's change hasn't been nearly as dramatic as Barber's under new coach Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp but has also been a success.
Instead of switching positions, he merely changed systems from the classic, drop-back passing game he was used to in Cincinnati and Oakland to a West Coast system that called on him to use more rollouts, ball fakes and short passes than he traditionally had employed.
The changes have worked well for Palmer, who has his highest passer rating in five years (85.7), is on pace for a career-high in yardage (4,437) and has a career-low interception rate of 1.9 percent.
"He understands where to deliver the football," Barber said. "If you give him certain looks, he's going to make the right reads. You got to expect that out of him. He's not one to make many mistakes. Obviously we're going to do our best to try to force him into them. He's a 10-year guy now, so there's not much that he, like me, hasn't seen."
The Bucs and Raiders have followed the paths of their team leaders a bit. After slow starts where both teams finished September with 1-3 records, both are starting to play their best football of late.
Tampa Bay is coming off a 36-17 win at Minnesota, marking their third straight game with at least 28 points and 400 yards of offense.
The Bucs have paired one of the league's stingiest run defenses with a high-powered offense with quarterback Josh Freeman regaining his form from two years ago. With big-play receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams on the outside and a capable running game led by rookie Doug Martin, Freeman has thrown for 1,010 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception the past three weeks.
"Everyone is getting a little bit better and it adds up," Schiano said. "That doesn't mean anything it's looking forward. It gives them confidence, it should give them confidence that 'Hey, this is what we're capable of but you're only as good as your next outing.' That's what we need to do. We need to go out and do a little bit better this week against Oakland. That's what we have to try."
Oakland has won two straight following a last-second loss at undefeated Atlanta. Last week's win in Kansas City was perhaps the Raiders most complete of the season.
The offense played turnover-free after the first play of the game, the defense controlled the line of scrimmage and pestered Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel all day and the offensive line gave Palmer plenty of time to throw in the 26-16 victory.
"A lot of the things are just working out the kinks of our offense," said running back Darren McFadden, who had a season-high 114 yards rushing last week. "We're getting there a lot better where we were a month ago. The last couple of games we've been pretty consistent with the running game. We've been pretty consistent as far as running the ball, throwing the ball, and I feel like it's something we have to keep sticking with."
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