TAMPA — Two games after he was knocked out by an illegal hit while fielding a punt, Clifton Smith was the one causing headaches again.
Smith returned a kickoff 83 yards in the fourth quarter Sunday to help the Bucs rally from an 11-point deficit in a 38-28 win over the Packers. He also returned four punts for 54 yards.
That performance earned the Pro Bowl kick returner an award as the NFC special teams player of the week Wednesday.
But Smith also garnered more respect as a fearless competitor for overcoming the concussion he suffered Oct. 18 from the vicious hit by the Panthers' Dante Wesley — an injury that forced Smith to miss the next game against New England.
"It's a great honor to be put up in that category once again," Smith said. "My teammates get all the credit for all the success I have, they open up holes for me and make my job easy. I just find a hole and hit it.
"Everybody kept asking me if I was going to be afraid to catch the ball like I used to, and I pretty much answered all those questions about playing the game without fear."
Smith's kickoff return Sunday, which came just minutes after the Packers' Aaron Rodgers appeared to have put the game away with a 13-yard touchdown run, is just one of more than a half dozen splash plays produced by the special teams this season.
It was preceded Sunday by Ronde Barber's 31-yard return for a touchdown of a punt blocked by linebacker Geno Hayes.
The Bucs have blocked three kicks this season: a blocked point-after by Barber at Washington, and a blocked field goal by guard Davin Joseph against Carolina.
Mixed in was a recovery of an onside kick by Elbert Mack at Philadelphia, a deflected punt by Maurice Stovall against New England and the 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Sammie Stroughter against Carolina.
Smith, an undrafted rookie from Fresno State when he was signed from the practice squad and made the Pro Bowl, epitomizes the effort special teams coach Rich Bisaccia has been getting from players.
"In a football realm, a lot of us have been knocked out," Bisaccia said. "Regardless of the level, I think we all know what it's like to see the white flashes and have come back from that. But on a personal note, for Clifton, he is the guy who was told after college ball to get you a 9-to-5 (job). He's the guy who wasn't drafted, and he'll tell you he ran 4.7, but I think he ran like a 4.8 on his pro day. He is the guy who was told he never had a shot to make it. …
"I think when a guy has those character traits — 'I'm unstoppable a little bit, whether I tell you or not, I know it and I feel it' — he's going to come back from those things."
According to Bisaccia, what separates Smith from other kick returners is his ability to also cover kicks. Smith assisted on three tackles against the Packers. The special teams benefit from a recurring cast of players such as Torrie Cox, Maurice Stovall, Brian Clark, Adam Hayward and Quincy Black.
"For the most part, we've got a good group of guys who have played enough football, have made enough mistakes to be self-correctors," Bisaccia said.
Not that there haven't been mistakes. The Bucs have struggled in the kicking game. Tampa Bay has made a league-low three field goals, and Conner Barth is their third kicker, following Mike Nugent and Shane Andrus. Punter Dirk Johnson ranks 29th in the NFL with a 41.4-yard average and a net of 36.3.
Bisaccia, who came to the Bucs as part of Jon Gruden's staff in 2002, has established himself as one of the best special teams coaches in the NFL. During his tenure, the Bucs rank sixth overall in kickoff coverage (21.2) and seventh in punts inside the 20-yard line (193). This season, the Bucs are first in kickoff return average at 30.0. In their first 497 games, the Bucs had no kickoff returns for touchdowns. In the last 27, they have three.
The Bucs were dealt a blow Wednesday when safety Will Allen, the special teams captain, went on injured reserve with a broken thumb. But the Bucs will find a way to replace him. When Smith went down against Carolina, Stroughter, a rookie, returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
Stroughter was not surprised by Smith's rebound Sunday.
"He showed you the reason he's a Pro Bowler, right?" Stroughter said. "That was the biggest thing to me — adversity, and how his character reflected. He's a fearless guy. … It's one of those things in our blood. Fall down, get up."