LB Derrick Brooks and the Bucs' defense went all out to stop Emmitt Smith last Sunday, and they'll have a similar challenge in Miami
One is headed for the Hall of Fame and the other is getting his first extended shot as a starter, yet to the Buccaneers they are a pair of running backs by the same name.
Last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense spent much of the afternoon chasing the legendary Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys. This coming Sunday, the target will be Lamar Smith of the Miami Dolphins. There's no relation, by bloodline at least. By the style of their games, Smith and Smith have a lot in common, according to the Buccaneers.
"He's very much like Emmitt Smith last week, a lot of cutback running, the same type of plays that Dallas runs," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. "He's breaking a lot of tackles and really controlling the game for Miami."
Lamar Smith is indeed having an outstanding season for the Dolphins, and while his career numbers pale in comparison to Emmitt Smith's, he is as important to what Miami is trying to do as his more well-known Dallas counterpart has been to the Cowboys' offense for years.
Smith missed the Dolphins' win at Indianapolis two weeks ago, but has averaged 85.2 rushing yards and nearly one touchdown per game in the other 11 contests. Only twice has Smith been held below 40 rushing yards in a game, and the Dolphins lost both of those contests. That's saying a lot for a team that owns a 10-3 record.
In the interest of full disclosure we'll admit that, in Miami's third loss, Smith rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, you'll remember that game – the Dolphins led 30-7 at New York in the fourth quarter before losing 40-37 in overtime to the Jets. That sells two points: one, Miami is likely to use their running game to try to get on top and, two, anything can happen.
"I would think that's the way it's going to play out," said Dungy of the likely two-team insistence on establishing the run. "You never know how a game is going to play out, but they are certainly emphasizing the run and doing it well. The last couple of weeks, we've gotten our running game going. I think you're going to see two real solid defenses as well."
Solid enough on Tampa Bay's side to put the clamps on Smith, who could become just the fifth Dolphin rusher ever to surpass the 1,000-yard mark? Hopefully. Tampa Bay ranks 11th against the run, having surrendered 103.0 yards per game, but has had good games and bad in that category. Though the Bucs did a respectable job against the still-effective Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys' back did gash the middle of the defense at times.
"We need to get back to fundamental football and our keys, filling our gaps and tackling well," said Dungy. "At times, we've been that way, but we haven't been as good as we were last year, and we have to get back to that. We've had more long runs, more eight and 10-yard runs against us than we're used to, and that's what we've got to get squared away."
Smith has rushed for 100 or more yards in a game four times this season, one in each month, as it turns out. Statistically, Smith has found the going a little tough over the last six weeks, averaging over four yards per carry just once in that span. That does not mean he's wearing down, however.
"He's getting stronger," said LB Derrick Brooks. "It kind of all started with our game in the preseason…we felt like we gave him a position down there. But he's a tough back to tackle, a big back, so we've got our work cut out for us. They run the ball, one of the top five rushing attempt (teams) in the league. They're committed to the run, just like our offense has been the past few weeks. It's going to be a matter of who can stop the run on defense and which defense can get the most turnovers. I think that's what the game's going to boil down to."
And perhaps an afternoon of tracking down Emmitt Smith will have the Bucs better prepared for his Miami namesake.
"He's a good running back," said DE Marcus Jones. "I'd say he's somewhat of a cut-back runner like Emmitt Smith. I think that's one of the reason why Coach is harping on watching out on the cutback, because he's one of those guys that always looks for it."
Emmitt Smith had some success with that approach, gaining 80 yards on 20 carries, often on cutbacks against a very aggressive Buccaneer defense. Jones expects to see Lamar Smith try the same thing.
"It's a copycat league, basically, and when you see something that works that one team does, some teams tend to copy that," said Jones. "They cut back against the grain and bounced it back out. We're looking to see that again. When things work on you, they try to do it again."
One very good example of that is the fake end-around, which has suddenly become very en vogue around the National Football League. While sending the running back up the middle, a team will bring one of the receivers around for a fake handoff after the real handoff. After showing that look a few times, the team will suddenly fake the primary handoff and give it to the receiver on the end around.
The Bucs have seen it repeatedly, and it worked for the Buffalo Bills, as receivers Eric Moulds and Peerless Price ripped off 20 and 27-yard runs, respectively, against Tampa Bay two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys tried the same pattern, but when QB Troy Aikman finally handed off to WR Wane McGarity, the Bucs were ready, instantly trapping McGarity in the backfield for a two-yard loss.
Tampa Bay would like to see the same thing happen with the cutback and this week's Smith. Jones said the Bucs are working on the issue, staying within their defensive scheme but working on angles of pursuit that will counter the cutback. "Cutting down on his options," is how Jones explains it.