CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Don't expect anyone in the Tampa Bay secondary to pull a DeAngelo Hall on Sunday against Carolina's Steve Smith.
Veteran Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber knows better.
``I've played against Steve a lot and I know one thing: making him mad is not the right thing to do,'' Barber said, laughing.
Smith, a three-time Pro Bowl pick motivated by the smallest perceived slight, was held to one catch for 10 yards against Atlanta. But he got so far under Hall's skin the bombastic cornerback committed 67 yards worth of penalties - including two personal fouls - on the Panthers' game-tying touchdown drive.
Carolina (2-1) seized the momentum from there in a 27-20 win, setting up an early showdown with surprising Tampa Bay (2-1) for the NFC South lead.
For the Bucs to continue their turnaround from a 4-12 season and take early control in a weakened division, they'll have to stop Smith and the Panthers. Carolina has won seven of the past eight meetings, and Smith has four straight 100-yard receiving games against Tampa Bay.
Hence, the Bucs are avoiding a trash-talk contest with No. 89.
``When he's playing angry, he's very hard to deal with,'' Barber said. ``So, you won't see me or any of my DBs approaching him in that manner.''
Smith could be catching passes from David Carr on Sunday, with Jake Delhomme recovering from a strained right elbow suffered in Atlanta.
The uncertainty at quarterback is a theme surrounding both teams. While they're off to good starts after struggling last season, their four combined wins are against three teams - New Orleans, Atlanta and St. Louis - that are a combined 0-9.
The mood surrounding the Bucs is much more positive than in Carolina, where the defense is under fire. The Panthers' high-priced line has two sacks in three games. Julius Peppers didn't have a tackle last week as Joey Harrington threw for 361 yards. Carolina is also without an interception.
``We know we can be a good defense,'' said rookie linebacker Jon Beason. ``We looked at stats of when we were good and we just need to start faster. That has just been our focus this week is going out and playing faster.''
The Bucs have been reinvented under Jeff Garcia, who has completed 66 percent of his passes and hasn't thrown an interception. And while the Bucs have struggled against the Panthers, Garcia has won three straight starts against Carolina, including a Monday night game in Philadelphia last season.
``They're still a good defense, quality players on the defensive side of the ball,'' Garcia said. ``We have to expect the best out of them. This is a big rivalry.''
With DeShaun Foster leading the way, the Panthers have averaged more than 180 yards rushing in their two wins, presenting a compelling matchup with the Bucs' improved defense.
Tampa Bay ranks fifth in the NFL in total defense and is giving up 12.3 points per game, as players have been repeating a ``hustling and hitting'' slogan in the locker room.
``It's just something that's being emphasized, and thankfully we've been able to go out there and do it the past couple weeks,'' linebacker Derrick Brooks said.
Brooks is one of the few holdovers on this new-look defense that hasn't been able to stop Smith and the Panthers. Since Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, Carolina has averaged nearly 24 points a game against the Bucs.
``From then on it seemed like they had a sixth sense on how we were going to play football,'' Barber said. ``Probably one of the best things that have happened to us is that we do have a lot of young guys that don't really understand this rivalry, although they definitely will at the end of Sunday.''
It's been a series full of physical football, war of words and odd finishes. From Carolina blocking an extra point on the final play of regulation in 2003 in an overtime win, to Chris Simms playing with a ruptured spleen last season before undergoing emergency surgery that night, something bizarre always seems to happen.
``As a lineman, we know it's going to be real physical,'' Panthers tackle Travelle Wharton said. ``We know come Monday morning when we wake up, we're going to be real sore.''
Who wakes up Monday happy and alone atop the division could depend on Smith. He had 15 catches for 261 yards and a touchdown in two Carolina wins against Tampa Bay last season.
The moody Smith said Thursday he wasn't talking to reporters the rest of the season. And after Hall lost his composure trying to cover him last week, Barber vows no Buccaneer will engage Smith in conversation Sunday.
``I'm not going to say it's just Steve Smith,'' safety Jermaine Phillips said. ``But when you look at it offensively, he's the one who's hurt us.''

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