The 0-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have spent the entire week preparing for their NFC South division rival – the 1-3 Carolina Panthers.
Although Carolina rushed for 299 yards in its last meeting with Tampa Bay in December, one of the players the Bucs spent a significant amount of time game-planning for this week was Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.
Smith leads Carolina in receptions (20) this season, but still is looking for his first touchdown.
Carolina's offense has struggled this season and currently ranks 27th in the NFL, averaging just 282 yards per game. However, the Bucs know Smith is more than capable of helping the Panthers offense break out of its funk at any time.
"He's a great player," Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates said of Smith. "It's fun to watch great players … when you're not playing them. You can see the talent that's there. He can take a short pass the distance every time he puts his hands on the ball. I like the way he competes and he's a true talent. He's as scary as any wide receiver there is in the league."
The Bucs have plenty of film to watch on Smith. He's practically been a human highlight reel in his last eight games against the Bucs, catching 50 passes for 779 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's always been an issue, and I'm sure he'll be talking to me on Sunday," said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. "You're talking about one of the premier receivers in the league. He's arguably the best, and I've always said he's the best because he's been in [the NFC South] division for a long time. He's tough to deal with. He can do it all. He's tough, physical and when he gets the ball in his hands he's tough to get to the ground. He can catch it deep and he can catch it short. He does it all."
The Panthers are 9-3 against the Bucs, a team they face twice a season as division rivals. But the Bucs are quick to point out that the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith has had some help in terms of producing against the Bucs.
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme has played an integral role in Smith's success against Tampa Bay. He owns a 8-2 record as a starter vs. the Bucs.
"Jake is a savvy quarterback," said Morris. "He's won a lot of games in the final two minutes against us. He has the ability to make some plays in the passing game, but he's had some help from Smith and others. They've have some good running backs as well. I don't want to give Jake too much credit, but I don't want to take away credit, either, because when you're 8-2 against a football team and you're the leader of that team you should get a lot of credit."
Delhomme has struggled this season, throwing eight interceptions through four games, but so has Tampa Bay's defense, which has allowed nine plays of 40 or more yards and ranks 28th in the NFL.
But Smith is the player the Bucs are concerned with most. They will attempt to slow him down by having second-year cornerback Aqib Talib, who had three interceptions against Washington and limited Philadelphia WR DeSean Jackson to just one catch last week, cover Smith for most of the game on Sunday.
But even Talib might not be enough to limit Smith's production against the Bucs on Sunday.
"You'll see [Talib] cover Smith," said Morris. "He finds ways to get matched up on other people as well. You can only follow him around so much. Talib plays left corner, and he can line up on the right side a few times, but they know ways to get him away from Talib if they want to."