While Cam Newton has dominated much of the conversation heading into the Panthers' game with the Vikings Sunday, he hasn't been successful on his own. He has had a lot of help, but nobody has been bigger in his transformation as an NFL quarterback than wide receiver Steve Smith, whose battle with a depleted Vikings secondary is this week's key matchup.
Smith is no stranger to the Vikings. In 2005, he topped 200 yards receiving by owning Fred Smoot, and, in the aftermath of the Love Boat scandal, changed end zone celebrations by simulating rowing a boat after he scored a touchdown. In 2009, he topped 150 yards as he again was the focus of the Panthers pass offense. But, in recent years, those moments were few and far between.
It appeared heading into this season that Smith's best days were behind him. With the exception of his 2004 season that ended one game in, from 2003-08, he had five seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards, but he had been trending downward the last two years. He failed to reach 1,000 yards in 2009 (982) and appeared to hit bottom in 2010. His 46 catches, 554 passing yards and 12-yard reception average were all career lows as a starter. It seemed as though, despite his speed and toughness, his best days were behind him.
Enter Newton as a one-man fountain of youth.
Smith needs just seven receptions Sunday to match his entire 2010 reception total – which would accomplish that feat in just eight games. He has already blown away his 2010 yardage total and leads the NFL with 818 yards on 39 receptions. After posting his career-worst per-reception average in 2010 (12.0), he is on pace to shatter his career best, averaging 21 yards per catch and reasserting himself as one of the game's most dominant deep threats.
Through seven games, Smith has posted 140 or more yards four times, with yardage totals of 143, 156, 178 and 181. He is the clear-cut go-to guy in the Panthers passing game and would have logically been expected to be a major part of the Panthers game plan Sunday under normal circumstances, much less the makeshift Vikings secondary.
If all things were normal, the Vikings likely would have had a rotation of cornerbacks assigned to Smith, with Antoine Winfield, Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook all getting their chance to neutralize the playmaker. However, Cook is suspended without pay following his arrest on domestic assault/strangulation charges and Winfield has been battling a neck injury that has sidelined him for the better part of the last month. Winfield remains a question mark heading into Sunday in terms of whether he will play or how many snaps he will play if he is active. Cook, obviously, isn't part of the mix, leaving the Vikings with backups cobbled together to try to hold down the Pro Bowl bound receiver.
Even under ideal circumstances, the Vikings would have been expecting a steady diet of Smith throughout the game Sunday. With the numerous question marks in the Vikings secondary, the Panthers may smell blood and look to make Smith the focus of their passing offense even more so than they have already this year – if that is possible. If the Vikings struggle early, it wouldn't be out of the question to see Smith catch 10 passes for 150 yards or more. The Panthers view this as a mismatch that they can take advantage of much in the same way Greg Jennings was used last week by Green Bay. If the Vikings are going to slow down the Panthers, their backup cornerbacks will have to step up.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Smith vs. second-tier secondary
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