Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith stayed in Charlotte with a foot infection instead of making the trip to New York Sunday for primetime football. It appears the Panthers' prolific offense stayed home with him.
It was extremely important for Carolina in the offseason to make sure the team filled the wide receiver spot opposite Smith with a capable target. One of the most intense position battles during training camp was for the third receiver spot on the depth chart.
No one expected Smith—listed and known around the NFL world as Carolina’s primary receiver—to be a question mark.
Smith, the five-time Pro Bowler, missed practice last week when his foot mysteriously started swelling and the infection appeared.
“All I know is he got an infection,” Rivera told the Charlotte Observer. “It could be from a scratch or something.”
Smith was seen on crutches Friday at the team’s walkthrough and later didn’t leave on the team plane to go visit New York and the Jets. Smith caught 79 passes last season and was Cam Newton’s favorite and most reliable target.
Carolina beat the New York Jets, 17-12, but seemed out of sync from the very first play of the night.
Newton turned to hand the ball to running back DeAngelo Williams who had taken a step in the wrong direction. The result of the busted play was a 7-yard scramble by Newton, but this might have foreshadowed problems to come for Carolina on offense.
Problems like a fumble on the next play from Williams. Just like in the play to start the game, good things happened from a bad break. Carolina tight end Greg Olsen pounced on the ball allowing the Panthers to maintain possession.
But the bad things kept happening to the Panthers offense and the unit couldn’t make lemonade from all the lemons on the field.
Newton finished his night 6-for-15 with 60 yards passing. He did throw for a touchdown, but his 40 percent completion rate will haunt the passes for sure. Newton was also sacked twice.
When pressure happened to Newton—even if it was designed pressure as with a screen play—passes were dropped.
When the pressure wasn’t by design, Newton had to run for his life. These are usually times when Smith being on the field helps the young Newton. Instead, as was the case during the drive that started with Williams dropping the screen pass, Newton was forced to chuck the ball into the crowd.
With Smith unavailable to play, the Panthers had an opportunity to evaluate the receivers’ depth chart behind him.
Brandon LaFell is expected to start opposite Smith, and that’s where the known realm ends among the receivers.
Louis Murphy and Seyi Ajirotutu are next in line for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart, but both are question marks at this point. Kealoha Pilares is also in the running as is David Gettis upon return from injury.
On Sunday LaFell caught two passes for 28 yards, his best a 22-yard out pattern where he separated early from Kyle Wilson and Newton perfectly hit LaFell in stride.
Pilares caught two passes for 15 yards Sunday and Ajirotutu was targeted but absent from the stat sheet with zero receptions.
Murphy caught three passes but didn’t churn out a lot of yards. His 16 yards were accentuated, however, by a 3-yard touchdown pass near the end of the first half.
Murphy may have taken another step in solidifying his hold on the No. 3 receiver spot Sunday, but the real takeaway was that a Steve Smith-less Panthers offense will have troubles in 2012.
Panthers Nation is hoping for a speedy recovery.