CB Brian Kelly and WR Steve Smith might prove to be one of the better matchups in the NFL on Sunday
Julius Peppers is 6-7 and 283 pounds and runs like a deer, but he won't be the scariest man in teal when the Carolina Panthers hit the field for Sunday's game.
Dan Morgan is an intense, mean, 245-pound middle linebacker who not too long ago got much of his upper torso inked with tattoos, but he won't be the scariest Panther in Raymond James Stadium, either.
Mike Minter is one of those safeties that likes to turn a receiver's crossing route into a midfield nap. Stephen Davis is 230 pounds of straight-ahead steam. Rod Smart plays with a "He Hate Me" chip on his shoulder and runs down the field like a kamikaze on kick coverage.
But do any of those players have the same nightmare-causing potential as 5-9, 185-pound Steve Smith?
If anyone was ever a big thing in a little package it's Smith, one of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL right now. What makes the feisty fifth-year player such a constant threat is what he can do after the ball is in his hands. A two-yard pass can easily become an 80-yard touchdown – he did just that three weeks ago at Detroit – and a game-changing moment.
Buc fans surely enjoyed watching Joey Galloway run a six-yard hitch then out-run everybody for a 78-yard touchdown in San Francisco. It would be far less enjoyable to watch Smith do the same thing at Raymond James on Sunday. Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden sees a lot of similarities in how the two receivers play the game.
"I have never seen a guy with that kind of speed and acceleration," said Gruden of Galloway, before another image popped into his head. "Now, we're going to see another guy very similar to that this Sunday in Steve Smith. This guy's also really fast, deadly fast at that."
Of course, Buccaneer defenders aren't frightened of Smith, even if they're fully aware of the threat he poses. Tampa Bay's pass defense is third in the league, having surrendered just 154 yards per game and allowed only two touchdowns while picking off seven passes. Undeniably the NFL's best pass defense of the past decade (eight top-five rankings in the last 10 years, including 2005), the Bucs rarely give up long completions, including just one of 40 or more yards this season.
But Smith is a different kind of threat than the Bucs have faced so far. He alone has four receptions of over 40 yards this season, three of which went for touchdowns. Smith has nine catches of 20 or more yards in just seven games and has three grabs of 65 or more yards in the last three games. Many of these long plays only require short passes.
"After he catches the ball – they're throwing him short passes, they're throwing him long passes – but after he catches the ball he's getting 15, 20 yards," said Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly. "So he's really doing well after the catch. He's making a lot of great catches, getting a lot of good breaks on his side. They're playing good ball and he's the X factor."
If there were an NFL receiving triple crown, Smith would have it at the moment. He leads the league in receptions (50), receiving yards (797) and touchdown catches (eight). He was just named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for October after recording three straight 100-yard games, each one bigger than the last, culminating in his 11-catch, 201-yard outing against Minnesota last Sunday.
All this after missing almost all of the 2004 season due to a broken leg suffered in the Panthers' opener. He was coming off an 88-catch, 1,100-yard season in the Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl campaign and looked like the perfect speed-and-shake complement to big-man Muhsin Muhammad on the other side.
Instead, Muhammad became the focal point of the Panthers' offense and had a career season, with 93 catches for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns. Carolina's offense succeeded – 13th overall, ninth in passing yards – despite the fact that Muhammad's catch total was nearly double that of the next player on the team's chart.
That was nothing. With Muhammad now in Chicago, it's Smith that is getting all of quarterback Jake Delhomme's throws, at an even more lopsided ratio. After his 50 receptions, the next player on the Panthers' receiving chart is running back DeShaun Foster, with 13. Receivers Ricky Proehl, Keary Colbert and Rod Gardner have 12, 11 and eight catches respectively. Nobody but Smith has even 200 receiving yards or three touchdowns.
Despite being five inches shorter than Muhammad, Smith is proving he can run every route and catch any type of pass.
"Delhomme's got a lot of confidence in him," said Kelly. "He's got 50 passes and the next guy's got maybe 15 or something. They've got great confidence in him. They're throwing the ball up in any situation – if he's covered, if he's not. It's just a combination of everything."
The Bucs haven't seen Smith for almost exactly two years, since a November 9 visit to Carolina in 2003. They remember him, though. After the Bucs had rallied dramatically in the fourth quarter to take a 24-20 lead, Delhomme drove the Panthers 78 yards for the winning score, a five-yard catch on a quick slant by Smith with a minute to play.
That game caused a few Buc nightmares, to be sure, as it effectively ended the team's efforts to defend its NFC South crown. That's what Smith can do: Turn a little thing into a big problem. And that's what Tampa Bay's outstanding pass defense has to avoid this Sunday.