TAMPA — There was a time not so long ago when it might have been shocking to hear Clifton Smith's name uttered in the same breath as Reggie Bush's.
The Saints dismissed that notion Sunday when, just as the Bucs punted either out of bounds or toward the sideline to limit Bush's returns, they at times did the same to Tampa Bay's rookie free-agent return man.
It's growing more difficult for the 23-year-old out of Fresno State to lull opponents as he continues to have success. The latest praise came Thursday when he was named NFC special teams player of the month for November.
"During the New Orleans game, I thought it was going to be a battle of keep-away," said Smith, the only player with punt-return and kick-return touchdowns this season.
"We kicked Reggie Bush to the sideline, and they also kicked me into the sideline. They were just trying to pin me to the sideline and trying to take away a lot of the field from me."
Smith leads the NFL in kickoff-return average (29.5 yards) and is second behind Bush in punt returns (17.6 yards) among teams' primary returners. This is the first time since Karl Williams in December 1996 that a Bucs returner has been player of the month.
"I think people recognize that he's dangerous," coach Jon Gruden said of Smith.
SAFETY VALVES: Carolina's Steve Smith has 273 receiving yards in his past two games and ranks sixth in the NFL with 958 yards despite missing the first two games of the season due to a suspension. But the Bucs face a dilemma with their safeties because the Panthers also have a formidable power running game that will require help from either FS Tanard Jackson or SS Jermaine Phillips. They may make adjustments, but don't expect the Bucs to get out of character.
"I think we're still going to stick to what we do," Jackson said. "But we're definitely going to be conscious of the deep ball with Steve Smith. But we have to stop the run, too. Whether we control it with our front seven or we have to use that eighth man in the box, I don't know yet. But I know we're going to do what we usually do, and we'll have success with it."
INJURY UPDATE: WR Michael Clayton (knee) appeared on Thursday's injury report. Gruden described his problem as tendinitis. "We think he'll be okay," Gruden said. "He did practice a little bit, but he was limited. He'll be ready to go." The same can't be said for DT Jovan Haye (knee), who missed practice. "I'll say he's very questionable for Monday's game," Gruden said.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.