Shadow game

Bryant McFadden has become the Steelers' best cornerback this season. Now, he wants to take the next step.

PITTSBURGH – In this age where NFL teams look for wide receivers who are tall and physical, Carolina's Steve Smith looks even less like an average Joe than his name would suggest.

But on the football field, the 5-9, 185-pound Smith has few peers.

Ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, who face the unenviable task of chasing the speedster around the field Sunday when they travel to Carolina to face the Panthers.

"I think (Smith) is one of the best receivers in the game if not the best," said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. "He's the real deal. He's a guy you have to be aware of. He's a guy who can really take over a game as he's done in the past."

The Steelers would have a pretty good idea of who the best receiver in the NFL is. In the past two seasons, they've faced Cincinnati's Chad Johnson, Indianapolis' duo of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Detroit's Roy Williams, Denver's Javon Walker, Miami's Chris Chambers and Oakland's Randy Moss, among others.

In a number of those games, the Steelers chose to have cornerback Ike Taylor shadow those receivers all over the field. And usually, Taylor did a good job of keeping those players in check.

But after Walker lit Taylor up for six receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns in the air, and another 72 yards and a score on an end around, the coaching staff's confidence began to waiver in Taylor.

And the last three weeks, Taylor has been the team's third corner, playing behind Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden.

So it's unlikely the Steelers will shadow Smith, who has 71 catches for 1,025 yards and six touchdowns despite missing Carolina's first two games, this week. Besides, it would be difficult to do with veteran Keyshawn Johnson playing on the other side of him.

"If that's the direction we choose to go, I would welcome the opportunity to do it," said McFadden, a second-round pick in 2005 who has emerged as the team's best corner this season.

"I don't know what we're going to do at this point, though. Both of their receivers are dangerous. Steve Smith is one of the best in the game and Keyshawn is just such a big guy and he's a vet, so he knows how to make plays."

The 6-5 Johnson, acquired by the Panthers in the offseason after his release by Dallas, has been a nice complement to Smith, catching 62 passes for 725 yards and four scores.

Unlike Smith, who uses his speed and good route running to get open, Johnson relies on his size to get the job done. That could be especially troublesome for the Steelers, who have had their problems defending larger receivers this season.

"They like to throw the fade to Keyshawn," said the 5-11 McFadden. "And he's good at using his body to shield you off. You have to be aware of it."

One thing that could be in the Steelers' favor working against those two receivers is Carolina's quarterback situation. Starter Jake Delhomme missed last week's loss to the Giants with a thumb injury on his throwing hand and is questionable to play this week. He sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday and it looks unlikely that he will play. Veteran Chris Weinke started in his place and threw for over 400 yards, but saw his record as a starter fall to 1-16.

"Weinke's got a lot of experience, he's been with that organization and knows that offense very well," said Cowher. "I don't think they changed anything the other day. But Jake has certainly been a very productive quarterback in this league for a number of years."

Just like Johnson and Smith. McFadden admits to being in awe of some of the receivers he's been asked to cover in his two seasons in the NFL – for about two days.

"When I'm watching guys like Keyshawn and Smith on film, it's like ‘Wow, these are guys I was watching play when I was in high school and college," said McFadden. "I mean Keyshawn was the No. 1-overall pick in the draft when he came out and there hasn't been a receiver taken first overall since then. But that only lasts until about Thursday. And when the game rolls around on Sunday, they're just another receiver to me."

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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