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
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
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.
Trailing 6-3 just before the half and marching down the field, the Saints had first-and-10 at the Tampa 20.
On the opposing defense, keep your eyes on right defensive end
Against Green Bay, Peppers first caught my attention in the third quarter when he blew over Pro Bowl left tackle
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
Then Tampa gave 'em that Week 6 licking. A week later Carolina vented its frustrations on New Orleans, which was missing
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.
"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.
"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