American Football: Smith captivates as the bewitching lineman: Matt Tench, in Pasadena for Super Bowl XXVII, reports on the sacks' appeal of a raging Bill

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The Independent Online
AMID the overflow of hyperbole that has again characterised the build-up to the Super Bowl, one name has cropped up again and again this week. Nobody, it seems, has got a bad word for Bruce Smith. Mostly they have a lot of good ones.

There will be a host of stars on display on Sunday, a smattering of superstars and even one megastar (Michael Jackson will be doing the half-time show), but the temptation as the week has progressed is to conclude that if the Buffalo Bills are to defeat the Dallas Cowboys and finally win the big one, then the most important performance of all will be Smith's.

Such a claim rests not just on Smith's talent but on Dallas's. The Cowboys have a strikingly well-balanced unit, one that has improved during the season and shone in the play-offs. Their second-half effort in San Francisco, with the NFC championship at stake, was so commanding, so assured that you had the feeling that even an earthquake could have been overcome by a couple of their finely honed plays.

To prevent them carrying the Cowboys into an unassailable position on Sunday, the Bills will need to disrupt their rhythms early and keep them unsettled. Which is where Bruce Smith comes in. Or, rather, comes round.

Lining up on the right side of the defensive line, his trademark is the lightning blitz into the opposing back-field, which culminates in a brief and rather one-sided introduction to the quarterback. This is the job description for all defensive linesmen, but what sets the 6ft 4in, 20st Smith apart from almost all his contemporaries is the speed with which he accomplishes it. 'He's got the quickness of a Lawrence Taylor, but the power of a down lineman,' Mark Tuinei, the Dallas lineman who will be most occupied with these incursions, said this week.

'You see everybody else playing the defense to perfection, but Bruce being the player he is has a little more freedom to slide around and do what he wants to do - and that's damaging other people's quarterbacks,' Tuinei's fellow lineman, Nate Newton, said.

Nor are his abilities limited to pass-rushing. Such is Smith's speed that he sometimes finds himself behind the line of scrimmage at about the same time the running back is setting off the other way. With the Cowboy offense based around the rushing of Emmitt Smith, a couple of tackles for losses in the early stages could be key plays.

At 29, Smith is in his prime, and has an additional reason for wanting to perform well, beyond even Buffalo's desire to make it third time lucky. After a tremendous display in their first Super Bowl two years ago, Smith was a peripheral figure 12 months later against the rampant Redskins, a knee injury reducing his role to that of a bit part.

After a second serious operation on the knee in the off-season, he worked ferociously to return to fitness, and began this season focussed on making it to a third Super Bowl. 'Nobody wants it as bad as I want it,' he said then.

Despite attracting his customary attention (he is double-teamed as a matter of course, sometimes triple-teamed at third and long), nobody has done more to take the Bills back to the big game.

The spectre of injury again loomed when he cracked ribs in the penultimate regular season game, and they can still be very painful. But, unlike the knee, it is an injury that can be more or less overcome for the duration of the game, and fears that he would repeat last years anonymity were dispelled in the championship game, where Smith gave Miami's highly rated young line a fearful runaround, claiming one and half sacks and five tackles.

'He surprised me in that game, I think he even surprised himself,' his line-backing colleague Darryl Talley said. 'I remember looking round at him after one of his plays, and he couldn't believe it.'

Smith has been a calm, imposing figure in the build-up to Sunday's game, less overtly irked than some by the media duties (Thurman Thomas also appears markedly more relaxed than on his previous two visits). Repeated, and often fairly banal, questioning has been treated with a politician's touch.

The Bills had matured with age, he said, and so had he. 'This is the best team we've had since I've been here, and we've had some good football teams. We've learned from our past mistakes and we want to prosper from that experience. You don't spell team with an I in it, so it is most important that we do this together and not just one man.'

Warming to that theme, he said that the improved play of his fellow linemen, Jeff Wright and Phil Hansen, had made things easier for him. 'In the past I felt I had to go out and win the ball game by myself. I don't feel that way now.'

(Photograph omitted)

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