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As much as the Bucs rely on receiver Joey Galloway as the centerpiece of their passing game, lately it has been the tight ends who have played perhaps the biggest role.
As they enter today's game against the Giants, Bucs tight ends Alex Smith, Anthony Becht and Jerramy Stevens figure to factor prominently in the game plan.
For one, they'll be called upon to help block the Giants' pair of devastating defensive ends, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. But the more critical matchup might be that of the Bucs' tight ends against the Giants' three linebackers, a unit led by standout Antonio Pierce.
Why is this matchup important?
The Bucs like to find mismatches with their tight ends, which Jeff Garcia is adept at exploiting as he works through his receiver progressions. Alex Smith and Jerramy Stevens, in particular, are very athletic and difficult for linebackers to handle. The Tampa Bay tight ends have nine touchdown receptions among them. "I expect to do just as much blocking as running down the field," Smith said.
What they're up against
The Giants linebacking corps, which includes Antonio Pierce in the middle and Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torboroutside, is a hard-hitting bunch. But put them in pass coverage and they're a lot less dangerous, the Bucs say.
Alex Smith said he and coaches have noticed several other tight ends who have had success against the Giants, notably the Eagles' L.J. Smith and the Redskins' Chris Cooley.
"Watching a little bit of tape, I think Cooley did a pretty good job against them," Smith said. "I think they kind of struggled with him. I just tried to look at other tight ends who play like us, and it seemed like there were some openings based on what I saw."
Something to consider
The tight ends' success hinges largely on the Bucs' ability to block the Giants' defensive front. If the Giants are able to create a pass rush with their base four-man rush, it will allow them to use numerous defenders in pass coverage. That reduces the chances a tight end will be able to run free and find the soft spots in the defense.
If the Bucs force the Giants to blitz a linebacker or two, that will create opportunities for the tight ends. Of course, if the pass rush begins to dominate, the tight ends won't be doing a whole lot of receiving but rather buckling down as blockers.