Breaking down Monday's Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers game (8:30 p.m., Eastern, ESPN) ...
1. Steve Smith has single-handedly slain plenty of opponents, but it won't happen to these Buccaneers. It's the same old story in Carolina: No one to complement Steve Smith. Muhsin Muhammad has been a model of inconsistency. The Panthers' third- and fourth-leading pass catchers play tight end. Fifth on the list is DeAngelo Williams, who's a running back. Somewhere down there, at a mere eight catches, is Dwayne Jarrett, who we can safely call a disaster at this point. So basically Carolina's offense is The Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme Show. Nothing new.
On the occasions that this two-man act is sufficient, as it was last week against Green Bay when Smith caught four crucial balls for 105 yards, Carolina's running game opens up, hence 128 total rushing yards and five touchdowns in a back-and-forth 35-31 win. With the Packers focusing on the run, the Panthers slipped Smith downfield for two crucial fourth-quarter grabs, 36 and 54 yards, that essentially sealed the game.
Those kind of diversionary tactics worked fine against the Packers, whose run defense is something far worse than porous lately. It won't fly against Tampa, whose run and pass units are both stout. In fact, it didn't work the first time these two teams played, in October.
Smith got his licks in: six catches for 112 yards. But Carolina didn't have anything to complement Smith, who was responsible for four of the Panthers' seven first-half first downs, and the running game never provided the distractions he needed in the defensive backfield.
Tampa's tough front four, complemented by outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, who led the Bucs in tackles that afternoon, held Carolina to 40 rushing yards on 20 carries. And the passing game was circus-like when Delhomme looked beyond Smith. Smith kicked off the game with an 11-yard gain, then watched Delhomme bounce a short pass off Brad Hoover's back.
When Carolina was forced to punt from its own 41 and Tampa blocked the kick for a touchdown, the rout was on. Delhomme would try to even the score by going deep three times in that first quarter: Smith pulled one in for a 48-yard gain that set up Carolina's only points, a 20-yard field goal. The other two deep balls ricocheted out of the hands of Carolina receivers Muhammad and Dante Rosario and were intercepted.
The only difference last week was Green Bay's inability to stop the run. Beyond Smith's four grabs, Delhomme only connected with one receiver, Muhammad, for more than one catch. And most of that was for naught. Muhammad caught and fumbled the first pass of the game, a 44-yarder from Delhomme. After that, he was pretty much done for the day. Without Smith's two big catches, each of which took Carolina down to the one, the Panthers would have been in a heap of trouble.
Unless someone steps up against Tampa Bay -- holding onto the ball would be a start, Moose -- then you'll see a replay of the first game. Two consecutive downs on that afternoon stand out to me. First, on second-and-seven in the third quarter Delhomme dropped back and looked long and hard for Smith, who was streaking down the right sideline. But Smith couldn't shake the double coverage and Delhomme resorted to a hard spike into the line of scrimmage that should have been called grounding from my perspective. One play later, same thing. One look at Smith, who was blanketed again, then Delhomme grounded another ball in disgust. Someone else has to earn the Carolina quarterback's trust this week.
2. Defensively, look for large impacts by two oldies but goodies, Julius Peppers and Derrick Brooks. These two guys are having career years, and it's not going unnoticed. Peter King pretty much covered the subject of Brooks in his magazine piece last week, but I'll tack on one play that popped for me against New Orleans last week.
Trailing 6-3 just before the half and marching down the field, the Saints had first-and-10 at the Tampa 20. Reggie Bush was in the backfield, which meant he'd be Brooks' responsibility if he popped into the left flat, which he did. At the moment Drew Brees turned and released, Brooks was at least three yards off Bush, who was moving towards the sideline. But Brooks made a hard break on the ball and got his mitt in to break up the pass while completely outstretched, Superman-style. Beautiful play by a 235-pound backer who moves like a defensive back, even at age 35.
On the opposing defense, keep your eyes on right defensive end Julius Peppers, who's found his motor again. At 28 he's not ancient, but he looked past his prime last year when he had zero multi-sack games and just two-and-a-half overall. Now he has seven in his past four games and he's on track for 15 total, which would be a career high. And all of that without the presence of mammoth tackle Kris Jenkins, who's wreaking havoc on AFC East linemen for the Jets this season.
Against Green Bay, Peppers first caught my attention in the third quarter when he blew over Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton with a beautiful power move that put Clifton back on his heels and a forearm swipe (not quite a swim) finishing move followed by a diving full-body takedown of Aaron Rodgers. That was Peppers' first sack.
His second, one quarter later, got my attention as well, but for the wrong reasons. On that play Peppers had Rodgers on the run along the right sideline. Green Bay was marching into Carolina territory for the go-ahead score and was already in field goal position. As Rodgers neared the sideline it was clear on television that Peppers should have pulled up and settled for what would have been no gain. Instead, he put his shoulder down and launched into Rodgers, drawing a late hit penalty and setting Green Bay up at the seven. So yes, Peppers has his motor back, but he's also showing the reckless demeanor that characterized his early career.
If one of these two guys is going to make a bigger impact on this game, I say it's Brooks. Peppers will have Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia moving around plenty, but Garcia's proven he's just as capable flitting around the field as he is sitting flat-footed in the pocket. Better, perhaps. Brooks, on the other hand, should help disrupt the Panthers' running game and will be a wet blanket on a passing game that relies heavily on runners coming out of the backfield. Advantage Brooks and the Bucs.
3. Five minutes with their schedules tells me which of these two teams is legit, and it ain't Carolina. Starting form the top, the Panthers edged the Chargers on the last play of the game in Week 1 and rallied from 14 down to nip the Bears, who've shown a Costanza-like inability to close in '08; then they handed the Vikings their first win. They whipped Atlanta behind Muhammad's lone standout performance of the year and laid the smack down on Kansas City when the Chiefs were in their darkest hour -- big whoop.
Then Tampa gave 'em that Week 6 licking. A week later Carolina vented its frustrations on New Orleans, which was missing Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey for half the game. The rest has been unimpressive: By four points over Arizona; by 11 over Oakland and Detroit, the later of which lead 10-0 early on; and by four over Green Bay with a humbling 17-point loss to Atlanta in between. You have to admire the Panthers for surviving in the cutthroat NFC South, but you'd kind of like to see them take care of business a little more convincingly against foes like Oakland and Detroit, no?
The Bucs have had a pretty similar slate. The Week 1 loss to New Orleans stung, but Tampa was in position to take that one when Garcia tossed an interception at the Saints' 20 with 40 seconds left. Them's the breaks. A week later they rallied with a thumping of the Falcons, then a gutty win over the Bears that demonstrated they can pass to win when needed.
They were in peak form in beating Green Bay; not so much in falling to a still-surging Denver. Then came that win over Carolina, a win over Seattle, and a solid four-point loss in Dallas that ended on fourth-and-five at the Cowboys 18. Without accounting for how they got there in the first place, I give Gruden and company credit for erasing an 11-point deficit in the second half against a charged up Chiefs team; and I give them much more credit for handing Minnesota its only November loss, by six points, one week later in probably their best win of the year. They had a slow start against Detroit the next week, falling behind 17-0 before waking up and winning by 18. The Bucs kept New Orleans at bay all of last week before sealing the deal late in the fourth.
In fairness, the manner in which the two teams worked through their schedules looks pretty similarly, but I give Tampa the edge for two reasons. First: timing. They nipped the Vikes and the Chiefs when those opponents were playing their best football. Same can be said about their loss to Denver. And Dallas's victory was a must-win for the 'Boys. Carolina, on the other hand, lost to the Vikings when they still looked lifeless; and their wins against Detroit, Kansas City and Oakland came when those teams were in their worst shape.
Secondly, I simply think Tampa, with its attacking defense and its efficient Garcia-lead offense, is built to play close games regardless of its opponents' worthiness. They've lost a few of those contests in the regular season, but that experience means they'll be in a good position to beat a team or two in the playoffs. I see Carolina as more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Its offense has to be firing from the word "Go" to be effective. The Panthers tend to combust once they fall behind good teams.
Every week, we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what one assistant from a 2008 Carolina opponent had to say about game-planning Smith and the Carolina running attack, to which our scout offers far more credit than I was willing:
On Steve Smith: "That's the No. 1 guy and you have to limit his touches. They do such a great job of not only calling pass plays to get him the ball, but they also have a deal where they call a run play and if there are eight or nine guys in the box defensively to stop the run, they have the ability and it's just between the quarterback and the receiver to call a hitch or a quick slant. Meanwhile, everybody, the other nine offensive guys on the field, they're executing the run play. They're executing the run play but the quarterback aborts the run and he just rises up and throws the ball out to Steve. It's a way offensively of saying, 'We're going to stay with this bad play, this bad run play into an eight-man front where we're not going to gain any yards because they've got one more guy than we can block; let's rise up and whip the ball out to No. 89 and see what he can do with it.' Even if he gets four or five yards, that's four or five more than you would get with a running play into that defense. That's a really unique way of getting Steve the ball.
"Steve's a guy that, whether you throw the ball downfield or you throw the ball to him on the line of scrimmage, he's good enough that he can make people miss. He's a little guy but he's physical enough that he can run over you. We've always said over the years that Steve Smith would be an unbelievable tailback because he's got great balance, he's a physical runner, he's real shifty, obviously he's got great speed, but he's a guy that can really do it all when he has the ball in his hands. You've got to have an answer for him.
"When we played Carolina, our number one goal was to stop Smith. We weren't going to let an explosion play by him change the game. We were going to deploy enough bodies to stop the run and we were going to hang in there and do a sound job in the running game. This week, I would think Tampa Bay would take a similar approach: be sound against the run, tackle the two ball carriers, don't give up any huge chunks in the run game and then do not allow Steve Smith to make some electrifying, explosion pass play.
On Carolina's running game: "They've always wanted to be a physical running team and now they have two first-round draft pick running backs: DeAngelo Williams and the kid from Oregon (Jonathan Stewart) who are two legitimate big-time backs. These guys are home-run-hitter type backs where, if you deploy so much attention to stopping Steve Smith, either one of those guys can make you pay for it. They're something to deal with, no doubt about it.
"DeAngelo -- you'd probably classify him as a guy that's a between the tackles, power running back, but he's also shifty enough and fast enough that he can get out on the edge and make you pay. For people that don't really know about him, he's a complete back. In my opinion, he's on the verge of becoming a big-time back in this league. He's very good out of the backfield catching the ball as a screen back, as a check-down back. I think he's a complete back that can play on every down. He can carry the ball on first down; he can protect and catch the ball on third down. He's not a one-dimensional back by any means.
"Same with Jonathan Stewart. I don't think there's much difference between him and Williams. The skill-set that they both bring is unbelievable. For a team to have one first-round draft pick ball carrier let alone two, to go along with Steve Smith... They've got some legitimate, big-time weapons."
Easy pick. Tampa locks down Smith, probably with the physical Ronde Barber; and the combination of interior guys like Jovan Haye and Chris Hovan paired with Brooks and Barrett Ruud coming from the 'backer spots shuts down the Carolina run game, if only for one game. With a banged up backfield, I expect Garcia to attempt his fair share of shots downfield, but with Peppers on his trail he'll have his best luck working the short stuff to a talented set of tight ends. Tampa scores twice in the air and wins 20-10.