Alex Smith has been a much better than expected draft pick for the Bucs this season. Lost in the rookie hoopla over Cadillac Williams, Smith has gotten progressively better as the season has gone on. Initially lauded for his hands and his ability to stretch the field, Smith has gained more playing time because of his blocking.
The first week, Smith hauled in two touchdowns while getting five balls thrown his way. Since then, Smith's targets per game have dropped in half, to 2.7, and he has not caught a single touchdown. Instead, Smith has impressed his coaches with his blocking, culminating with his performance last week against the Panthers. Several times (as Gruden likes to do with his tightends) Smith was put one-on-one with Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. Sure, Peppers was playing injured but Smith had little trouble blocking the best defensive end in the NFL.
The Patriots are favored by five going into Saturdays matchup against the Bucs. And to be honest, I'm not sure what will be more annoying: the number of time the announcers mention these are the last two teams to win a Super Bowl or the number of time the announcers remind us that the Bucs have not won many games in the cold.
Anyway, as always I will be using stats from Football Outsiders, for a more detailed description of these stats go here.
Offense. Defense. Special Teams.
Buc's offense vs Pat's defense
DVOA . . . . Buc's offense . . . . Pat's defense
Passing . . . 4.7% (#13) . . . . . . . 40.5% (#30)
Rushing . . -8/9% (#21) . . . . . . -7.5% (#14)
The Buc's rushing attack would be rated higher except for Cadillac's injury. As good as Alstott and Pittman are they both depend on Cadillac to get things going for them. Cadillac had a great deal of success against Carolina last week, despite the fact that Carolina consistently put eight man in the box.
New England's defense has been one of the more injury plagued units (with the exception of the Eagle's offense) in the NFL. Unfortunately, many of the guys in the front seven have returned from injury recently. The key (depending on the weather) will be the play of New England's secondary which has been pulling guys off the street to play defensive back.
It will be interesting to see how two of the better schemers in the NFL, Belichick and Gruden, handle the blitz. New England under Belichick has made a name for themselves as one of the more exotic blitzing teams. Gruden has been utilizing max protection for his young quarterback, and, as I mentioned before, Gruden has not shied away from doing the unorthodox, by using a tighend to pass block against a defensive end.
Pat's offense vs Buc's defense
DVOA . . . . Pat's offense . . . . Buc's defense
Passing . . . 30.0% (#5) . . . . . . -9.5% (#11)
Rushing . . . -5.7% (#15) . . . . . -19.1% (#2)
Does anyone have a good explanation for the turn around by the Bucs defense? Last season they were one of the better teams against the pass, but this season they are much better against the run than they are against the pass. Maybe the addition of Chris Hovan or the fact the Bucs are more frequently playing with a lead has something to do with it. Or maybe it's something else entirely. I don't know.
Corey Dillon's return from injury has restored balance to an offense which relied heavily on Tom Brady early in the season. But now, Brady may be injured (but with Belichick you never know what's going on) and last time I heard this Tom guy's pretty good.
I really can't get a good feel for how this game will go. Conventional wisdom says, especially considering the weather, it will be a low scoring affair. But then again, if you look at the stats, both offenses have an advantage when they pass the ball. Of course, the Bucs have been winning games recently by playing Bucs ball, i.e. running the ball and playing tight defense in close games.