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Nickelback geared up to shut down star-studded crew

Dwight Smith is eager to prove himself against explosive Raiders.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- He could line up Sunday against the greatest receiver in NFL history. Or another future Hall of Famer with more than 1,000 receptions, or another Raiders star who scored nine touchdowns this season.

Dwight Smith doesn't care whether Oakland sends Jerry Rice or Tim Brown or Jerry Porter up against him. The only thing he wants on football's greatest stage is for the NFL's No. 1 offense to see him, think it has a mismatch and test him.

"I want whoever they're throwing the ball to," the Bucs cornerback said. "We just played a better receiver in Terrell Owens. (Rice) is a Hall of Famer, greatest all-time. But he puts his pants on just like I put mine on. Come on. He's no Superman. There are no capes on that field. I'm not afraid of failure. You can't get me to sit here and say I'm worried about what this guy's going to do."

Smith, a second-year pro out of Akron, said the First Rule of Cornerbacks is to respect all your opponents but fear none. Rice may be the best ever, and Brown might be going for the Super Bowl ring he has wanted for 14 seasons, but that doesn't matter to Smith.

"I'm ready to play against Jerry Rice, against Tim Brown, against Jerry Porter. This is how you make your career," he said. "You don't make a career playing against (Philadelphia's) Todd Pinkston and guys like that. You make a name off the Hall of Famers, and that's what I want to do."

The 5-foot-10, 201-pound Smith often finds himself in the shadow of starters Brian Kelly, who led the NFC in interceptions, and Ronde Barber, whose 92-yard interception return sealed the Bucs' NFC Championship Game victory Sunday in Philadelphia.

But facing a team with three standout receivers, Smith often lines up as the nickel cornerback against a dangerous downfield threat. It's a challenge he eagerly awaits.

"The questions I get today are all, 'Don't I think they're going to move Jerry Porter around and get him on me?' " he said. "Why didn't San Francisco move Terrell Owens around to get him on me? There's a reason. Watch film."

Getting burned in the Super Bowl can bring unparalleled infamy, but Smith wants the Raiders throwing in his direction.

"I'd love that," Smith said. "That's how Larry Brown won Super Bowl MVP."

Brown intercepted two passes for Dallas to clinch Super Bowl XXX in 1996, a performance that landed him a five-year, $12.5-million contract with the Raiders a month later. Smith isn't looking for a payday so much as a chance to prove his doubters wrong.

"A guy like me, from Akron, you never get the press or the focus you might feel you deserve," Smith said. "You've got to earn respect. You've got to earn the cameras. You've got to earn the Raiders saying they don't want to put Jerry Porter on you."

Smith was the 14th cornerback chosen in last year's NFL draft, going to the Bucs in the third round with the 84th pick. Of the cornerbacks chosen ahead of him, only Buffalo's Nate Clements had more interceptions this season. Smith's four also put him even with the cornerback he replaced, who left for a lucrative free-agent contract with the Jets.

"A lot of the talk around Tampa was, 'We let Donnie Abraham go. Why would we let Donnie Abraham go when we have this young guy we know nothing about?' " Smith said. "I still have to prove myself to these people back in Tampa."

How impressive are Smith's four interceptions in his first two seasons? That's as many as starters John Lynch, Barber, Kelly and Dexter Jackson had combined in their first two.

Defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said Smith's early success is a combination of his ability and the Bucs' confidence in him to handle a bigger role with the urgency that comes in a potential Super Bowl season.

"We've asked a lot of Dwight, but he hasn't felt the pressure in the situation. He's applied the pressure," Tomlin said. "He has a great outlook, a corner's mentality, and it's a big reason we feel he's going to be a great corner in this league."

Compared to Barber or Kelly, Smith might look like an inviting target, but that strategy might be playing into Tampa Bay's hands. Tomlin said Smith won't be limited to handling the third-best receiver but will take whomever the Raiders pit him against. Like his cornerback, Tomlin is fearless about Sunday and about taking his chances with Smith.

"We don't hide guys. We don't match receivers. In nickel, he'll be playing right corner, and if they're looking for him, that's where he'll be," Tomlin said. "It's not about who we're playing. It's about what we do."

There's more than validation motivating Smith, who wants to help the secondary establish itself among the most dangerous. When Barber intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass to seal the win against Philadelphia, Smith was right behind him, escorting him the length of the field. The touchdown was rewarding for Smith, who said Barber, too, deserved better treatment this season.

"He's been disrespected this year," Smith said. "The snubbing of the Pro Bowl because of some stats. He's our guy. When we need a guy shut down, we go to Ronde. That's a guy I look up to."

Smith could do the same against the Raiders, and if he's cast as the underdog going in, it's a role he'll gladly play.

"You couldn't ask for a better storyline," he said. "First, to go beat the team that everybody says you can't beat, at their place, then to come in as an underdog to the No. 1 offense in the league? You can't ask for anything better than that."

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