Although he's had three different quarterbacks in six games, Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is having another very solid season. He's caught an NFC-best 35 balls for 496 yards and six touchdowns. The next closest Panther in terms of receptions is tight end Jeff King with 18, roughly half of Smith's total. So no matter who is under center, Steve Smith remains the main target.
Jackson will need to be at his best today. Smith is extremely explosive and athletic, bringing a rare blend of speed and quickness. What makes Smith so tough is the way he explodes out of his cuts. He has fluid hips and body control to get in and out of his breaks quickly, allowing him to separate from defenders. He's also an agile, crisp, short-to-intermediate route runner who doesn't hesitate to go over the middle and can make difficult catches in traffic.
Smith has very good hands and the quick feet to avoid the jam off the line. Nonetheless, although tough and physical for his size, he can be overpowered by bigger defenders in some situations, and physical corners can muscle him out of his routes. Marlin Jackson must get his hands on Smith at the line of scrimmage and work to disrupt his routes.
Fortunately for the Colts, this is something Jackson does well. Marlin plays the game strong and can do a good job of rerouting the receiver once he gets his hands on him. He is also very fluid and can mirror receivers as he trails. This will all be part of the chess game between Jackson and Smith.
Another thing to watch will be if and how each player makes adjustments throughout the game. For example, Smith will look to split the Colts zone by running short-to-intermediate routes, hoping to catch a pass in stride and then use his acceleration to make big plays. Jackson, with help from the linebackers, will attempt to cut off Smith from these short-to-intermediate passing lanes.
Jackson, though, must stay disciplined against Smith. Smith likes to run slants early in the game where he can use his outstanding quickness to shake the cornerbacks off the line and give his quarterback an easy completion. This is also a bait move because if the corner starts jumping the quick routes or thinking he has a bead on Smith, the Panthers receiver will run a post/corner route to get behind the cornerbacks and safeties for a big gain.
This week, in particular, the Panthers have an opportunity to create a real coverage mismatch when they go three wide and insert WR Drew Carter as the slot receiver. Typically, the Colts react by subbing in their nickel package where Marlin Jackson moves down to cover that slot receiver, while Tim Jennings takes over at tight cornerback. This week, that would create a huge mismatch on the right side between Smith and Jennings.
It'll be interesting to see how the Colts react when Carolina goes three-wide. Slot receiver Drew Carter has only caught 11 balls all season (less than two per game), so is it even worth subbing in the nickel package? Or why move Marlin down to man a receiver who seems to pose a minimal threat at best and risk leaving a very young corner on the outside against one of the best receivers in the game? If the Colts stick with their normal package and let Jennings play RCB against Smith you better believe they'll also be employing double- and even triple-teams in Smith's direction.