Tampa Bay's defense will have to find ways to account for San Diego's weapons Sunday. One of those weapons is tight end Antonio Gates, who has hauled in 72 passes for 826 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
However, the Bucs feel like they have a weapon of their own in safety Dwight Smith, who will likely be charged with the difficult task of covering his childhood friend on Sunday.
Smith and Gates grew up in the same neighborhood in Detroit. They even played on the same teams at Central High. That makes this matchup even bigger for Smith.
"He's a playmaker and he's a competitor," Smith said of Gates. "Like I told all of his cousins last week, I'm not going to be the Dwight Smith that gets in people's faces because I've got love for him outside of football. We grew up together and we've been together our whole life. But I've still got to go out there and do my job because I know he's going to try and do his.
At Central, the two friends played basketball and football together. They even helped Central win a state basketball championship during Smith's senior year. On the football team, Smith was a running back and cornerback, and Gates was a tight end and defensive end. Having played on his team throughout high school will make facing Gates even stranger for Smith.
"This is the first time I've going to play against him," said Smith. "We were always on the same team and we went to the state championship in basketball my senior year. We've always played together, so it will be different."
Smith has been covering the tight end more often during the second half of the season, and it's apparently working. The last two big-name tight ends the Bucs have faced -- San Francisco's Eric Johnson and Atlanta's Alge Crumpler -- have each caught just one pass against the Bucs. According to Smith, his ability to cover the tight ends in man-to-man situations is paying off.
"We played more man to man because we knew they'd come out looking for us to play more Cover 2," said Smith. "We know that Crumpler is a guy that knows how to find the open zones and things like that, so we played more man. Once our offense got going and we got up we were able to switch back to Cover 2 because we knew they were going to pass the ball."
While Smith fared well against Johnson and Crumpler, he said the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Gates presents some different challenges.
"He's a guy who lines up in a lot of unconventional positions," said Smith. "He's not going to be on the line of scrimmage where Crumpler, for the most part, was. He's going to be detached in formations, he's going to line up all over the field and he's clearly a guy they're going to in key situations. He's got double-digit touchdowns, I believe, and he's a force."
Smith has a lot of respect for his friend, who didn't even play football collegiately. Instead, Gates played basketball at Kent State. Now Gates, who joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent, leads all NFL tight ends in receptions.
"It will be fun because of the type of season that he's having," Smith said of Gates. "I'm proud of him. I know a lot of people doubted him, and this is big for him. It will pose a challenge for me. It will also help me as in showing what I can do."
Smith is regarded as a bit of a trash talker on the football field. Although he's not interested in engaging in those types of verbal exchanges with Gates, Smith said the trash talking must go on.
"The trash talking, well, I might have to make a play on him and go talk to someone else," said Smith.
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