Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Still on the Run

The Buccaneers’ defense looks at the 4-8 Cowboys and sees a legendary runner operating behind an impressive offensive line

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LB Derrick Brooks is in a hurry to conduct his first-ever on-field meeting with fellow Pensacola native Emmitt Smith

Derrick Brooks remembers the first time he witnessed the impressive work of Emmitt Smith in person.

"First time I saw him I was in the eighth grade," said Brooks. "He rushed for about 300 yards and I've been wanting to play him ever since."

Brooks was pretty much at ground zero of the Smith legend, growing up in Pensacola, Florida. Smith starred at Escambia (FL) High School in the Pensacola area and went on to earn All-America honors at the University of Florida. Brooks followed right behind Smith and garnered headlines at Booker T. Washington High School before his own All-America career at Florida State.

"I grew up knowing him," said Brooks. "He had achieved everything ahead of me, as an athlete coming up. He's a little older than me, but I've always been a fan of Emmitt's and it's going to be fun lining up against him. He's pretty much won every award you can win for an offensive player from our area, and I've done it on the other side of the ball, so it's going to be fun."

Considering what each has accomplished and what each is capable of, a meeting on the field should be explosive, an elemental matchup. Yet, all this time, it has never happened.

Until now. The Dallas Cowboys will hit town on Sunday for the first Bucs-Cowboys game since 1990, Smith's rookie season in the NFL and Brooks' senior year at Washington. Though the Cowboys have slipped a bit from the perch that made them, perhaps, the team of the '90s, Brooks and his teammates are gearing up for the same Smith that has been tearing up the league since that rookie season 10 years ago.

"He may not have the separation speed of years past, but he's still making those cuts, looking good in the open field," said Brooks. "Getting 900 yards and averaging over four yards per carry – I think he's still a very dangerous back."

Former Pro Bowl receiver Michael Irvin has retired and QB Troy Aikman has been hampered by injuries this season, but Smith remains the unquestioned catalyst in the Dallas attack. He has an exact total of 907 rushing yards and is picking up an outstanding 4.2 yards per tote.

"Emmitt was tremendous, and still is," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We had him at the Pro Bowl last year, and he just amazed me with some of the things he's able to do. He's almost at 1,000 yards already after Week 12, so he's still playing very good ball for them."

After rushing for 937 yards as a rookie, Smith has topped 1,000 yards every year since. He's a lock for that mark again this year, but the Bucs would rather he reaches the plateau against someone else.

"We've got to shut him down," said Brooks. "That's the only way we have a chance to win. If these guys, as good as their offensive line is, are able to run the ball, we're going to be in trouble. We have to go out there and stop it, and not let him get his 1,000 yards."

Yes, as Brooks points out, Smith has had some excellent help in his annual runs to four digits. Throughout their Super Bowl years in the 1990s, the Dallas' offensive line was an enormous strength, rife with Pro Bowlers who combined size, strength and agility. Thanks to injuries, retirements and free agent defections, many of the Cowboys' former strong spots have been weakened, but that's not the case with the front wall of the offense.

"They're really a hard unit to compare anyone to," said Dungy. "They're very, very big. They've been together awhile. They're athletic. Usually, you get big 320 and 330-pound guys that aren't athletic and we've got a little edge that way. But that's not the case with these guys. They're all good athletes and they know how to play the game. They are, by far, the best unit that we've played against from that standpoint."

The Buccaneers' coaching staff used extensive game film on Wednesday to drive that point home to its defense, which always approaches run defense as job number one. Brooks got the message.

"We watched them on film," he said. "They're a very physical offense. There's no doubt the offensive line is the strength on their team right now. They're playing well and it's going to be a good matchup for us. We feel that they're going to try to run the ball and keep our offense off the field. It's going to be a big test for us, probably one of the most physical games we have all year. We're looking forward to that test."

The Bucs even had the opportunity to watch Smith in action on Thanksgiving, as the Vikings took on the Cowboys in Texas Stadium. Smith was running very effectively against Minnesota, particularly behind the moving blocks of guard Larry Allen, but a concussion knocked him out of the game.

Smith is on the Cowboys' injury report, but he's listed as probable and is expected to play. Smith and his injured teammates have had a long break after their Thanksgiving affair.

"They've had a little extra time, three extra days, to rest up and get ready," said Dungy. "So we're expecting their best game and we know we have to play our best to beat them."

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