How Steve Smith's Return Impacts Panthers' Passing Attack vs. 49ers

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How Steve Smith's Return Impacts Panthers' Passing Attack vs. 49ers
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before...

The Carolina Panthers are in dire need of a No. 2 receiver to take pressure off Steve Smith. Since 2002, save two seasons, Smith has been the go-to guy for whatever quarterback is under center.

Rodney Peete, Jake Delhomme, Vinny Testaverde, Jimmy Clausen then Cam Newton: That’s been the general procession of passers who’ve relied on Smith as their No. 1 target. Outside of 2006 when Keyshawn Johnson finished his career in Carolina, or '08 and '09 when Muhsin Muhammad was a very capable battery mate, Smith has been the talent for the Panthers.

Carolina Panthers: WR Combos
Year QB No. 1 WR Catches./Yds No. 2 WR Catches./Yds
2013 Cam Newton Steve Smith 64/745 Brandon LaFell 49/627
2012 Cam Newton Steve Smith 73/1,174 Brandon LaFell 44/677
2011 Cam Newton Steve Smith 79/1,394 Legadu Naanee 44/467
2010 Jimmy Clausen Steve Smith 46/554 Brandon LaFell 38/468
2009 Jake Delhomme Steve Smith 65/982 Muhsin Muhammad 53/581
2008 Jake Delhomme Steve Smith 78/1,421 Muhsin Muhammad 65/923
2007 Vinny Testaverde Steve Smith 87/1,002 Drew Carter 38/517
2006 Jake Delhomme Steve Smith 83/1,166 Keyshawn Johnson 70/815
2005 Jake Delhomme Steve Smith 103/1,563 Ricky Proehl 25/441
2004 Jake Delhomme Muhsin Muhammad 93/1,405 Keary Colbert 47/754
2003 Jake Delhomme Steve Smith 88/1,110 Muhsin Muhammad 54/837
2002 Rodney Peete Muhsin Muhammad 63/823 Steve Smith 54/782

Pro Football Reference

Tight end Greg Olsen led the team in receiving this season, and Muhammad did in 2004 when Smith suffered a broken leg. Outside of those two seasons, Smith’s been the guy for 10 years, and you can argue he was the guy this season, too, even though his numbers trailed Olsen's a bit.

A Week 16 injury sidelined Smith, who had just one catch before a PCL sprain sent him off. He missed all but eight snaps of that game against the New Orleans Saints and all of Carolina’s Week 17 matchup against the Falcons.

If the Panthers are in dire need of a No. 2 receiver, what happens when you take away the team’s No. 1?

Let’s just say that three No. 3 receivers do not add up to one No. 1.

In Week 17 in Atlanta, with Smith cheering the team on from the sideline in street clothes, Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell combined for four catches for 22 yards. On a typical game day, with Smith and Olsen ravaging defenses like they do, four catches between Hixon, Ginn and LaFell wouldn’t be the worst thing.

But without Smith in the lineup, those numbers are catastrophic. 

Hixon had two catches for 16 yards on three targets. He drew coverage from rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, who both did well in assignment. Ginn caught two passes on five targets for six yards. He did catch a three-yard touchdown pass, but two three-yard catches on the day isn’t exactly tearing it up.

The real issue was LaFell, who had zero catches on five targets and one dropped pass. LaFell was supposed to be the guy who could emerge as a solid No. 2 opposite Smith, but that hasn’t quite been the case.

LaFell’s first target was the one drop and a pass any NFL receiver must come down with. LaFell was in the slot and ran straight down the seam with defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi in coverage—a very favorable matchup.

Courtesy NFL.com

Sure, Massaquoi got some help from the deep man in the secondary, but the ball hit LaFell in the hands and bounced away. He has to come down with that ball for the big gain.

LaFell’s next four targets weren’t really his fault. One was thrown too high by Newton and another thrown away with LaFell just happening to be in the vicinity. Trufant stepped in front of LaFell on one of his targets and should have had an interception. Technically, those three are targets off LaFell, but not even Smith could have pulled them in.

The fifth target was one where LaFell was working one-on-one against Trufant, who had good coverage on the play.

Courtesy NFL.com

You can argue that Smith might have pulled off one of his miracle catches and hauled that pass in, but more than likely, that was one that would have been incomplete.

LaFell’s stat line that featured zero receptions on five targets is a bit misleading. He didn’t have as bad a day as that line indicated. But still, he has to catch something. Smith caught at least one pass in every game he played this season, including the New Orleans game where he only played eight snaps.

Luckily for the Panthers, the team might not have to go through another game without Smith, who, as Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported, would practice Wednesday on a limited basis and play on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Smith isn’t sure he’ll be 100 percent, but the Panthers will take whatever they can get from their star wideout:

On Monday, he initially pegged his availability for Sunday’s rematch with the 49ers at 60-40 before revising his assessment to 100 percent.  He explained that the question isn’t whether he can play with the injury, but whether he can play with full confidence in the knee.

"I'm still doing some things every day to build that muscle memory, to know where my limit is on bending it," Smith told Bryan Strickland of Panthers.com about the fact that he's continually getting better, and Wednesday was the day to start testing the knee at practice. "Every day you've got to see how far you go, and then you have to be able to say, ‘I'm good for today.'"

Having Smith in the lineup, even if he is hobbled, should open up the playing field. The San Francisco defense is going to have to account for him at all times with not only a cover corner but likely some sort of help from elsewhere in the defensive backfield.

The 49ers’ coverages will likely shift toward Smith’s side of the field, leaving Olsen less traffic to deal with in the middle and light coverage on Hixon, LaFell and Ginn. Instead of facing the opposing team’s No. 1 corner, someone in that group of three receivers who together only caught four Week 17 passes will face San Francisco’s No. 2 corner or even its nickelback.

Facing the 49ers without Smith is a bad idea and not a recipe for success. Carolina’s Week 10 win over San Francisco was a brutal battle where Smith caught six passes and was targeted 11 times. LaFell was targeted eight times and pulled down four catches for 48 yards. Only twice this season was LaFell targeted more by Newton, so obviously there’s something that the Carolina coaching staff saw about his matchup that made him a more-than-viable target.

But if Smith’s not on the field, that game plan can be tossed. He’s of vital importance to Carolina’s offense not only because of his pass-catching skills, but also because of what he forces the defense to do just to slow him down.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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