The Bucs are used to paying very close attention to Steve Smith when he's on the field
Though he has yet to make his season debut, Carolina Panthers All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith remains a rather large blip on the radar of Buccaneers defenders, who this week are going about their preparations with the expectation that the explosive number 89 will be on the field Sunday.
Smith has missed his team's first two games of the season with a pair of tweaked hamstrings and, without him, the Panthers have lost both of those contests while averaging a mere 157 passing yards per game. That's a far cry from their offensive production when Smith is in the fold.
How far? Last season – a year in which Smith set careers highs in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns – the Panthers' passing attack averaged almost 50 yards more per game and was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. In two games last year against the Buccaneers, the man with the common name was anything but common, catching 10 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown.
"When you lose a guy like Steve Smith you lose arguably the most explosive player in football," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They've added a great receiver in Keyshawn [Johnson]. They have a number of very good players, they really do. [But] it's hard to replace a guy who has the instant play-making skills of a Steve Smith."
Buccaneers strong safety Jermaine Phillips, a man who will undoubtedly be aware of Smith's presence on the field, shared similar sentiments about the game-breaking receiver.
"Without [Smith], you see they've been struggling," Philips said. "We're going to prepare like he's going to play. We know he's a competitor, so we know if he can be out there, he's going to be out there."
The Panthers, as desperate for a win as are the Bucs, are hoping Smith proves Phillips a prophet. Reports out of Carolina indicate that Smith made an appearance Wednesday on the Panthers' practice field to do some light running for the team's trainers. It may be a sign that last season's most productive receiver is ready for action. If that's the case, expect Smith to get plenty of looks from Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme.
"I can't wait for us to get him back," Delhomme said.
It's easy to see why Delhomme is excited. Last season, of the Panthers 445 attempted passes, 150 of them were thrown in the direction of Smith. What's more, his 1,563 receiving yards accounted for 47.8 percent of the Panthers' total receiving yards last year. That's more than the other three top receivers in the NFL last season. And his 103 catches were almost 40 percent of the Panthers' total receptions. To put that figure in perspective, consider that Santana Moss, Chad Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald – second, third and fourth in the NFL last year in terms of receiving yards – accounted for 30.2, 26.8 and 24.6 percent of their teams' total catches, respectively.
"Steve Smith is a great receiver," Philips said. "He's number one last year in receptions and yards as well. He's a big-play man for them. When you have him on the field, it adds another dimension – somebody else you have to game plan for."
The Buccaneers continue to do just that, all the while cognizant of the fact that with or without Smith, the Panthers are a dangerous team that presents a very tough challenge Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
"They've got a lot of talented players," Gruden said. "They're a veteran team, they know how to win and their back's against the wall just like ours is."
Addressing the media Wednesday, Delhomme said of the Panthers 0-2 start, "The quarterback needs to get better. Running backs, receivers, all of us need to get better. We have to get better and make some plays on Sunday."
The Buccaneers defense has to ensure that even if Smith is on the field Sunday, he's not part of that equation.