Time for Carolina to get Smith involved

The Carolina Panthers have won two games in a row—albeit against the ‘Skins and Bucs—but two in a row regardless, giving this team some direction as we start to work towards November football in the NFL.

But, where is Steve Smith?

There has been plenty written about Smith’s lack of production this season, and our own Michael Lombardi commented on it yesterday in his Diner Morning News—and what he said makes perfect sense: the Panthers need to get more creative to get Smith the football.

On Sunday, in a 28-21 win over Tampa Bay, the Panthers ran the ball 48 times—numbers we don’t see that often at this level. And Smith—who is one of the best receivers I have seen up close on the field—caught one pass for four yards.

One pass? Sure, the Panthers did take some shots down the field to Smith, but those looked like feeble attempts—thrown into coverage down the field, almost as if offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson was trying to appease his star receiver with token deep throws.

However, those are indeed needed in the game plan, but only to complement what Smith should really be doing—catching the ball in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Think about it: the three-step game, the deep comeback, the deep dig (15-yard square in), the hitch versus off-man coverage and so on.

Just get him the football and let him go to work. A five-yard hitch to Smith is as good—if not better—than an off tackle power running play to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, because there is always a chance that Smith slips a tackle and is gone for six.

I played against Smith many times during my own career in this league, and while the deep ball is always a concern when he lines up, seeing him with the football in the open field is a nightmare for defensive backs. Smith doesn’t play like a Randy Moss or a Terrell Owens, because that is not his strength. He is not much different than Anquan Boldin of Arizona. He can break tackles, he can catch the ball in traffic and he turns into a running back—with power—in the open field. The only difference between the two is speed—because Smith can run past anyone in this league.

If you want to look at this year’s numbers, they tell the same story compared with last season.

2008: 78 receptions - 1, 421 yards - 6 TDs (18.2 yards a catch)

2009: 21 receptions - 259 yards - 0 TDs (12.3 yards per catch)

The big play is gone from his game and teams are preparing throughout the week to stop him.

From what I have seen, clubs are playing a lot of 2-Man to his side. Think of the Cover 2 we always talk about with man principles. Instead of the corner jamming Smith to the inside and sinking to the corner like they do in your conventional Cover 2, they are playing pressman with a trail technique. They force Smith to take an outside release, play underneath any inside or outside breaking route, and are protected by a safety sitting over the top—who drives down on any route and defends the deep ball.

Basically, they are doubling Smith and taking their chances with Muhsin Muhammad and the running game—and it was working up until the last two ballgames.

Even in saying that, this team still has to get him involved. He is too good and too much of a big-play threat to just throw up a couple of deep balls to throughout the course of a game. Yes, Jake Delhomme has struggled at QB all season, but even he would benefit by getting Smith involved early. They see 2-Man? Then run the slant, beat the corner inside and let Smith make a play.

Those two wins were nice, but that isn’t going to cut it when Carolina has to compete with the big boys of the NFC.

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