TE Alex Smith will try to work the field in a way that helps rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski succeed in his first start
Overcoming the noise in the hostile Louisiana Superdome will be a tough task for Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, but finding an open receiver amid a very good Saints secondary might prove even tougher. Fortunately, Gradkowski has the advantage of playing with second-year tight end Alex Smith.
That's no slight to Buccaneers wide receivers Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard, but the Saints' defense has been extremely effective this season in limiting opponents' passing attacks, particularly taking away chances for opposing wide receivers.
With a quarter of their season complete, the Saints are ranked third in the NFC in passing yards allowed. Through four games the Saints have surrendered only 692 total passing yards, good for an average of 173 yards per game. During that span, the Saints secondary, led by their aggressive cornerbacks, Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas, has allowed only one 100-yard day by a receiver.
That defensive focus on wideouts, while effective, has come at a price – susceptibility to tight ends.
In three of their four games, the Saints have allowed a combined 23 catches for 181 yards to tight ends. The failure of Panther tight ends to pull in even one pass last week against the Saints had more to do with the Carolina's seldom use of tight ends in the passing game, as evidenced by their tight ends combining for all of four catches in four games so far. In all, tight ends have accounted for nearly 30 percent of all passes completed against the Saints and more than a quarter of all receiving yards they've allowed.
That's why Smith and his pass-catching skills could play a big role in Sunday's game. Last season, Smith ranked third among all rookies and first among rookie tight ends with 41 receptions. Those 41 receptions were the most by a Buccaneers tight end since Jackie Harris posted 62 in 1995. A third-round pick by the Bucs in the 2005 draft, Smith saw action in all 16 games last year, starting 10 and racking up 367 yards by season's end. It was a highly productive rookie campaign, but Smith believes the best is yet to come, for himself and the Bucs' offense.
"I think I just barely scratched the surface," Smith said of his rookie campaign. "For whatever reason, our offense hasn't been clicking the way we've wanted it to, but I think we definitely saw progress this last game and the potential we have. We had some pretty big plays and were finally able to move the ball. I think we're just going to keep building from there and try to keep going."
Smith could get things rolling against the Saints. At 6-4 and 258 pounds, he provides Gradkowski with a big target. That's important to a rookie quarterback making his first start in the NFL. Plays and bodies will be moving at a speed to which Gradkowski is most likely unaccustomed. In that kind of environment, having a big-bodied target that stands out in the crowd can benefit an inexperienced quarterback.
"A lot of times the tight end can be a safety valve," Smith explained. "[Quarterbacks] usually have a feel for where their tight end is going to be, and if anything goes wrong, they know where to find them. I can be that safety valve for Bruce. He's going to have things flying at him 100 miles per hour. The calmer he can be and the more reassurance he has in me, the better it will be."
What's more, Smith's intermediate routes are generally deemed safer, higher percentage throws for Gradkowski as opposed to passes down the field intended for wideouts, which demand precise timing and accuracy.
"A lot of quarterbacks look to tight ends because they always know where we are going to be – generally, standing right in front of them five, 10, 15 yards deep," Smith said.
But just being big and running a shorter route doesn't guarantee success. A pass-catching tight end has to be able to get open in a crowded territory, and that's something Smith says he works hard at.
"You have to know how to do it all," Smith said, explaining his responsibilities to block and be a factor in the passing game. "I spend as much of my time working with receivers as I do with offensive linemen, working on footwork because you never know who you'll be matched up with, whether it's a DB, a linebacker or a safety. It's just one of those things that you have to keep working and working on."
In addition to the footwork, Smith said getting a clean release is critical. Unlike wide receivers who are often on the perimeter, tight ends usually begin an offensive play in the trenches, lined up across from defensive linemen and linebackers. Successfully navigating around those big men can mean the difference between a first-down catch and never getting off the line of scrimmage.
"You have defensive ends in front of you, and you don't know whether they are going in or out," Smith said. "You have a backer in front of you sometimes on the line. It can be really tough getting off the line, but you have to because if you don't, you know you won't be getting the ball. It's one of the things we really work on – getting releases so we don't get held up on the line."
When it all comes together, a tight end can be the quarterback's best friend, a la Donovan McNabb–L.J. Smith, Michael Vick–Alge Crumpler or Phillip Rivers–Antonio Gates. Sunday, the Buccaneers hope to add Gradkowski-Smith to that list.