There is mutual respect between Steve Smith and the Ronde Barber-led Bucs' secondary, but both sides head into Sunday's game with confidence
The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers were preparing to meet, five weeks ago, Buc players called Panther Steve Smith the "X-Factor" in the game and harped on the importance of keeping the speedy wideout in check.
And, for almost three quarters, they did.
It wasn't doing the Bucs a whole lot of good on that day, in which the Panthers' defense and an ageless Ricky Proehl had built a 24-7 lead by shortly after halftime. It appeared as if Carolina would get out of Tampa with a win that didn't require Smith's usually outsized contributions, somewhat like the Bucs' victory in Atlanta a few weeks later in which Joey Galloway did not catch a pass.
Well, not so fast.
Smith had only two catches for 32 yards through the game's first 39 minutes, but quarterback Jake Delhomme apparently decided it was time to get his favorite target a little action. After a Buccaneer fumble, a deep out to Smith gained 16 yards down to the Bucs' three, and safety Jermaine Phillips was flagged for unnecessary roughness on a late hit. The Bucs held on first-and-goal at the one, forcing a field goal, but Smith's will was switched on. And that can be a terrible thing for Panther opponents.
"He's the best in the league right now," said Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who knows a thing or two about desire and big plays. "He just wants it more than almost everyone else. He plays harder than most guys."
Smith would finish that game with five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. He scored the Panthers' final points on a 35-yard fly up the left sideline on the second play of the fourth quarter, after which Carolina ran on virtually every down until the end of the game.
Smith has the speed to get behind a secondary, but he actually does a majority of his damage on plays that begin in front of it. If you think you're seeing the same replay over and over again on Sunday evenings this fall, you're not. Smith has repeatedly taken very short passes and simply run around or by the tacklers in front of him for long gains.
"He's great after the catch," said the Bucs' other starting corner, Brian Kelly, who is an outstanding one-on-one tackler. "He does a good job of making a lot of yards after the catch, so I think tackling's going to be very important for us this week. We're not going to just shut him out completely where he's not going to catch a ball. They're throwing him one-yard passes and you can't stop those. But when he gets the ball in his hands we've got to be able to tackle him and get him on the ground."
The Bucs, on most days, are one of the league's most surest tackling teams. They work very hard at tackling techniques in practice. There are off-days, of course, and the results are usually pretty evident. In this case, any breakdown against Smith might be as much mental as physical, as linebacker Derrick Brooks explains.
"Obviously, some of his better plays are off one-yard hitch passes," said Brooks. "He's making individual efforts in terms of breaking tackles. Teams are assuming he's down and they're pulling up and he's still running. Obviously, our gang-tackling on Steve Smith is going to be big, preventing him from turning those two and three-yard hitches into 20, 30-yard gains and touchdowns."
Smith has a reputation as an intense and emotional player, but he gives the credit for his own development into a star to his own growing maturity. He leapt onto the scene with a bit 2003 season (88-1,110-7), but he's gone to a new level this year (82-1,226-10 through 12 games) after spending most of 2004 in an agonizing rehab from a broken leg, suffered in last year's opener.
Smith attacked film study and other aspects of his craft during his down time, and now he's using that knowledge and highly honed skills to attack defenses. He's not taking anything for granted against the Bucs' defense, though.
"Kelly, he plays a different kind of game…he's physical, he's smart, he's been around the league for a long time and his playing shows it," said Smith. "Ronde, he's always making plays as well. Those two guys are consistently making plays, week-in and week-out. Get them on a play and they'll come right back and get another play. They're very consistent. Those are guys you worry about when you play receiver because they can come up and press and they can shift back and read the quarterback and receiver at the same time."
Unfortunately, Smith can succeed against great players. Last week, he scored an 18-yard touchdown on a short pass which he basically took over star cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
"The touchdown he had last week, I think he ran through DeAngelo [Hall] and ran around the safety," said Barber. "That's not supposed to happen. You don't see that happen too often in the league, where one guy basically beats two guys in a five-yard area. He's a special player in that regard. There's no doubt about it. He's a tough guy to get on the ground. He's short and very powerful in the legs. He's got some explosive power in him. He offers a big challenge."
The challenge of stopping Steve Smith wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
RB Carnell Williams on if he understands the importance of this game: "It's December football. This is when the games really, really count. What better time than Sunday for us to go [to Carolina] and see who comes out on top."
C John Wade on if this week is a bigger challenge than most weeks: "Every week's a challenge. Not to discredit the Carolina Panthers – they're obviously a very good team with a lot of talent, but every week's tough in the NFL."
RB Michael Pittman on the importance of Sunday's game: "Well, it will definitely be a playoff atmosphere out there. Very few games are bigger than Carolina. So, it is a tough game. It's going to be two very good teams out there. We just have to do what we have to do to win this game. They are going to present eight man fronts and different kind of things like that, but we have to come up above. We have to run the ball hard to win this game. We have to sustain drives, keep the crowd out of the game and do whatever we need to do to win this game."
LB Derrick Brooks on if this is the home stretch: "No, I just want one game at a time. I know that sounds boring and cliché-ish, but that's what it is."
QB Chris Simms on if the Bucs think this game is do-or-die: "I don't think we do. We understand it's extremely important. It's a division game and every division game is important. We've got a tough schedule ahead. We realize they've got a tough schedule, too. I know they've still got to play Atlanta again. They play Dallas, I believe, the week after us. Anything can happen. We're going to try our hardest to win this one this week, but we're not going to say this is a do-or-die situation."
Wade on if the Bucs look at this game as a last chance to win the NFC South: "We just look at it as a tough divisional game against a good opponent who's playing well this year, playing well the last couple years. Obviously against us, whatever the past is, it is. This week's a big week for us against a really good divisional opponent. That's how I'm looking at it. It's going to be a tough game and let's go out there and get the win."
Williams on if the Buccaneers have to win on Sunday to win the division: "It's not like you look at it like you have to have it, but to me, it's one of those wins that we need. We are trailing [Carolina], so if we can get this one, we will be setting ourselves up for something good."
LB Ryan Nece on looking ahead: "We just have to win this one. There is no driver's seat right now. We just realize that we have to take care of this job, take care of this week. We have a tough one that following weekend up in New England, the cold weather, and all of those types of things. This is the biggest game of our schedule right now and that is really where our mindset is."
CB Ronde Barber on the unusual way that the Bucs, Panthers and Falcons have all beaten each other over the last few years: "Yeah, it's kind of funny. I didn't realize that Atlanta had that much control over Carolina until this weekend. They had won five in a row against them until last week. That's funny that it's worked out that way in this division, but things change."
CB Juran Bolden on playing the Panthers: "I think we match up well. We really look forward to this challenge. I know history shows that they've beaten us five times in a row so we're trying to get off that little monkey slide."
Wade on playing well against Carolina at times but coming up short: "We've had some close games with them since I've been here. Obviously, earlier in the season it wasn't a close game. They beat us and they beat us good. We just need to go out there and work this week. We know what we're going to be facing, we know the environment's going to be a hostile environment. Their team's going to be ready as well and they're fired up."
Barber on if he has seen a pattern in the five losses to the Panthers: "Not particularly, no. It's been in different ways. Obviously, the last two haven't been pretty. But there's not anything consistent in what they've done other than get after us in the same manner that we used to get after people in the past. It's great defense, and a few years ago it was Stephen Davis and now it's Steve Smith. They're finding that one guy who completely dominates."
Brooks on what he took out of the first Carolina game: "Early on, personally I think we played better than we thought, in terms of moving the ball. Again, take away a couple plays, a couple penalties, a couple turnovers – well, one turnover – and you never know what would have happened. Defensively, we defended them well, we just gave up two big plays, a big run and a big pass. You give them credit, obviously, for their resilience, coming in here on the road and finding a way to win. We're going to have to show that same resolve, going up to their place."
Wade on the first Carolina game: "We just put ourselves in bad situations. It's not like we did it all by ourselves. They helped us there. So we've got to say, 'Hey, look at what they did to force us into bad stuff' and try to correct that. I think we just need to execute, period. Whatever's called, run or pass, I think if we just execute offensively, feed off each other and not worry about anything that happens, whether it's great or it's bad, just try to stay even-keel throughout this game, we'll be alright."
Barber on fighting off negative thoughts that the Panthers are going to be the ones who make the big play at the end: "Well, if you want to win games, you're either making them or getting them made on you. If we expect to win this game, we have to be able to make the plays in crunch time, not them. But they've proved they can do it time and time again. It's been different guys. Ricky Proehl has been a Buc-killer back to '99 when he was in St. Louis. It's a whole lot of different things and we have to be on our details."
Brooks on the Panthers being a tough team: "They're very similar to us in terms of [being] a defensive-dominated team. If the defense is playing well, stopping the run and getting turnovers, that correlates to wins. That's very similar to us. If we're playing well, we're stopping the run and we're getting turnovers our offense will turn them into points."
Nece on if they have studied the tape of Chicago beating Carolina from earlier this year: "Obviously, they play a similar defense to what we play and so we can see the style in which they play, the schemes in which they use. But we really look at our film and look at how we played them last, and correct a lot of the mistakes that we had. When you look at our film and you look at the way we played on defense, we can make a lot of corrections and we feel that we can do a lot better job."
Brooks on if the Bucs will look at what the Bears did to stop Carolina: "Again, you can't buy into that too much. Right now, we're taking them at their best. What we're going to look at it is our game against them, and that's when they were hitting on all cylinders. That was one of their better games and that's the performance we expect out of them. We don't expect anything less than that. I don't know what watching the Chicago game would do for us, or watching the Buffalo game what that would do for us. Those were road games. They're playing at home, they're playing with some momentum and we feel they're going to come out and give us their best shot. We're going to look at our game because that's obviously when they were at a high. They were hitting on all cylinders."
Simms on if he learned anything by watching what the Panthers did to Michael Vick last week: "I don't think they're going to defend me quite the same way. I'm not quite as dangerous on the edge as he is. I think the one thing you learn from watching their defense is that they're very sound, they're well-schooled in everything they do and they're always going to have a good plan of attack. You've just got to play sound offensive football and not make mistakes."
Pittman on what the Bucs need to do to succeed against Carolina: "Running the football is going to be key. Like I said, they are going to present an eight-man front and they are a very disciplined defense. At the same time, we have to come off the ball, like I said earlier, and run the ball and just keep the clock going. [We need to] try to score first and get the crowd out of the game, and just keep pounding them and do what we have to do to win this game."
Williams on the importance of getting the running game off to a good start: "We are a team that wants to run the ball, and establish the run. We take great pride in that. As a whole, and as a team, we didn't do that last game [against Carolina]. We are definitely looking for a different outcome."
Williams on the improvement in the running game over the last three weeks: "I think it's Chris. He's been delivering the ball. He has shown teams that he is a threat and that he can go downfield. The guys up front, all along, they have been playing hard. They have been playing hard and the outcome has been better."
Simms on the key to getting the running game going: "The run game, we've just got to be physical up front. Hopefully we can limit some of their eight-men-in-the-box defensive looks. The last game we hit the deep pass to Joey when we played them. If we can hit a few balls down the field, of course that always helps out the run game. But I think all-in-all we've just got to execute better."
WR Ike Hilliard on the Panthers' defense: "John Fox is a great defensive coach. I was fortunate enough to play under him in New York for about six or seven years. I know the mentality he brings to the table and that's the kind of outfit he wants his defense to have. It starts up front, obviously, and carries on across the defense."
Williams on the Carolina defense: "The last four games, they have been hot. I think they've only allowed one touchdown. It's going to be a challenge for us as an offense. But these are the moments you live for, this is why you play football, for games like this. Personally, I'm looking forward to it."
TE Alex Smith on trying to block Julius Peppers: "I think everybody is still trying to figure that out. I don't think there's one good way. He has plenty of moves and you kind of just have to be patient, let him come to you and go from there."
Simms on Carolina's front four: "It starts with the two D-ends, [Mike] Rucker and [Julius] Peppers. They're just…I don't know, it's a toss-up between them and Chicago as the best tandem in the NFL. They're just extremely talented up front, they really are. They're well-coached, of course. Coach [John] Fox is a great defensive mind. We've just got to be ready for them. Last game, they blitzed us a lot early and we actually blocked out real well, picked it all up. Of course, the kind of game it developed into – we were down 24-7 – you don't want to be in that position against those guys coming off the edge."
Smith on if the Panthers' pass rush strength is more about talent than unusual schemes: "Yeah, I think we handled their blitz pretty well if you look back at that last game. I think it was more just one-on-one individual battles that we ended up losing. Anytime they don't have to blitz and they can still get pressure you have to be concerned about that."
Smith on whether a lot of max-protect schemes can open up some surprise passes later: "That's something that can really hurt a defense, when you have those outlet passes that are not accounted for. That's just one of those things we'll see as the game goes if it's needed or if it's not."
Hilliard on Mike Minter: "He's the guy who brings the pain in the running game, and he's probably one of the better blitzing secondary guys, if not the best. We have to account for him."
Simms on if he's confident that the team can succeed if the Panthers take Galloway out of the game: "We can win a game if Joey has no catches. We proved that in Atlanta. I hope it doesn't go that way, but we'll find a way to get it done."
Hilliard on if the Bucs are going to have to spread the ball around to everybody: "It depends on what the game plan is. We know what it is; I just don't want to disclose that information. It's a situation where every guy has to execute anyway, regardless of the game. Granted, this is for first place in the South. We have to put a little extra time in here on our own, after the day is over with, so to speak, watch a little film, working out or whatever. Whatever we have to do to try to get this win."
Simms on if two straight games with 10 points means the offense is struggling: "I don't think so. I don't think so at all. Two weeks before that, we averaged – what? – 33 points. It's just the league we're in and Chicago, best defense in the NFL; New Orleans last week just kind of became that kind of game. Their defense is extremely talented, I think people lose track of that fact. We're completely confident that we can get the job done."
CB Brian Kelly on if it was big to get the turnovers coming going into Sunday's game: "Absolutely. Carolina's the type of team that gives you a lot of opportunities to make plays, and they have a lot of confidence in their players to make the plays they want to make. It's going to be up to us to make the plays that we need to make in crucial parts of the game. There are plenty of opportunities. It might be the first play of the game, it might be the first quarter, it might be the last play of the game. You have no idea when it's coming; you just have to be mentally prepared to make the play when it's time to make the play. It's pretty much a cliché, you might say, but it is what it is."
DT Anthony McFarland on putting pressure on Jake Delhomme: "Our first thing, though, is to stop the run. They can turn the ball around and hand the ball off and we don't have a chance to [rush Delhomme]."
Kelly on if it's important to take Jake Delhomme out of his comfort zone early: "Yeah. If you look at the Chicago tape, they were able to get after him and cause some disruption. They made him force some plays in and they capitalized on them. We'd like to do that, too."
Brooks on if DeShaun Foster being in the game changes the Panthers' style of offense: "No, the same plays are still being run, no matter if it's him or Stephen Davis. Again, that's the beauty of their offense, they're not going to change up. They're going to call the play, they're going to know what you're in and they're going to run their plays. We respect that. In some form, that's like us on defense. We're going to line up in what we're in. We're not hard to figure out. You've just got to beat the man in front of you."
Nece on WR Ricky Proehl: "He is a veteran guy. Often times, and late in the season or any crucial games, better players are able to make plays, and that is why they have been in the league for as long as they have, because they are consistent. They are able to step up and you can count on them when you need them. A guy like Ike Hilliard made some big plays for us last weekend. Proehl is another one of those kinds of guys. You have to realize that you cannot relax on them. If you relax, they are still able to beat you."
Bolden on what makes Ronde Barber a great player: "I love Ronde because he gets in there in the film room and studies. The game just seems like it comes easy to him. A lot of people don't understand. He's a great athlete but he works hard. He's hungry for the game. He expects nothing but the best out of himself and he expects the best out of the rest of the guys in the secondary. Ronde is one of the best cornerbacks I've played with in a long time."
Simms on Brad Johnson and the Vikings doing well: "I don't miss much as far as the games every week. I'm a big fan of The Bull; that's what we used to call him. Brad is a great person, great work ethic and it doesn't surprise me one bit. He's just gone in there and become what he is, a great leader. He manages the game great and makes the big plays when they come to him."
Bolden on Steve Smith's celebrations in the end zone being incentive to shut him down: "Celebrations are celebrations. I swear, when I get in the end zone I'll probably get about 13 flags thrown at me. I like the celebrations. It shows the character of the person. Of course, I hate them when somebody's celebrating on us. Whoever we're seeing that week, our intentions are not to let them get into the end zone, not allow them to get in there and do those crazy dances. Steve Smith is who he is. We're happy with what we've got in the secondary and we like our chances facing these guys. We look forward to it."