Dwight Smith sets the tone with a jarring collision to prevent a Giants touchdown.
By ROGER MILLS
Published November 25, 2003
TAMPA - Sometimes, you have to make a statement. You might have to deliver a message. And sometimes, people pay attention.
The Bucs did so last week when they dispatched troubled receiver Keyshawn Johnson to the inactive list for the rest of the season.
The rest of the team paid attention.
Then Monday night, safety Dwight Smith dispatched Giants receiver Amani Toomer with one vicious hit.
And the Giants paid attention.
It was just one simple head-crunching, headache-causing, teeth-rattling smack in the end zone that likely will be on biggest hits highlight reels for years.
But to the Bucs, Smith's blast of Toomer, which dislodged the ball and saved a sure touchdown, exemplified what the Bucs once were and would have to be to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Nothing easy. Nothing free.
"It was big," safety John Lynch said. "Dwight hasn't been here long, but I think we've all come to know he's a big-play guy. A playmaker. I give him a lot of credit. He spent the entire offseason learning a new position and made that play from corner. His versatility is coming in handy for us."
Trailing by a touchdown, the Giants appeared to gain momentum when they stripped receiver Keenan McCardell of the ball and recovered it at their 40. New York had third and 4 from the Bucs 12 on the seventh play of a drive when Smith delivered. Toomer, who had an 11-yard gain on the previous play, snuck in behind cornerback Ronde Barber and was open in the back of the end zone. Quarterback Kerry Collins spotted him, made a perfect throw and Toomer appeared, for a fleeting second, to make the perfect catch.
But Smith, a corner converted to safety this offseason in part because of his ability to make plays on the ball and deliver a few telling blows, closed on Toomer and delivered a crushing tackle that dislodged the ball and Toomer's helmet.
"Well, I was really trying to shoot for the ball," Smith said. "Just trying to get it out. I ended up going up higher, but I got the ball out. At that point in time, I was just trying to make a play. Now, you look back and say instead of them getting seven (points) they got three."
On one hand, the incompletion forced the Giants to settle for a 30-yard field goal. On the other, it left Toomer and the Giants a little gun shy to come over the middle.
"You never know how a game is going to turn out over one play, but I think we'll look back at this game, when we're watching film and say what a huge play it was," Barber said. "It was one of the few red-zone scoring opportunities they had and Dwight made a play he had to make. It was an unbelievable throw by Kerry and an even more unbelievable play by Dwight."
The proof came on New York's next series. Facing third and 20 from the Giants 20, Collins went deep to Toomer down the middle and the receiver had the chance to score.
Perhaps hearing Smith's footsteps, Toomer dropped the ball with no defender on him.
"It's no telling what happened there," safety Jermaine Phillips said. "I can't speak for him. But, they know what kind of secondary we are."
Added Smith: "I doubt it, if the hit had anything to do with it."
Smith was not done. In the third quarter, Collins tried to hit receiver Ike Hilliard in the end zone for a 30-yard completion but Smith intercepted the pass. It was his team-leading fourth interception this season. "Coach (Jon) Gruden talked all week about being a fire-starter and igniting the team," defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "Big, jarring hits always do. We talked about that as a group and (Smith) delivered for us. He's got a lot to give so we're going to ask him to give it. He plays safety, he plays corner and he never complains. That's Dwight."