Steve Smith vs. Antoine Winfield/Cedric Griffin
For a team with as many quality skill position players as the Carolina Panthers have, the team has been able to get off to a 2-0 start this season without the benefit of its biggest offensive game-breaker – wide receiver Steve Smith. After sitting out a two-game suspension, Smith is making his 2008 debut Sunday, making his battle with Vikings cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin this week's Matchup to Watch.
Since 2003, Smith has piled up more than 1,000 yards and scored seven touchdowns or more in four of the five seasons – with the only non-1,000-yard season being 2004 when he played just one game. He has had at least one touchdown reception of 70 yards or more in each of the last three seasons and has established himself as one of the game's top deep threats.
The Vikings are no strangers to being on the receiving end of the Smith's ability. In 2005, the team tried to cover Smith one-on-one with CB Fred Smoot and the results were disastrous. Smith caught 11 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown and was a key to a dominating win by the Panthers.
The Vikings faced a similar type of situation in their first two games of the season. In Week 1, a long pass to Greg Jennings was a difference-maker in the 24-19 loss to the Packers. Last week, Reggie Wayne caught a touchdown late and a bizarre catch-and-lateral play with Anthony Gonzalez and Wayne covered 70 yards and set up the Colts' first score of the game after falling behind 15-0. It can be argued Smith is even more dangerous in the open field.
The Panthers have plenty of offensive weapons to spread the ball to – ranging from quarterback Jake Delhomme to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad, D.J. Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett. But those players can be accounted for by the Vikings defense. The run defense has proved up to the task of limiting the production of both speed backs and power backs and have done a solid job in slowing down possession receivers and limiting their gains. But the game-breaker type of receivers have consistently given the Vikings problems and Smith is likely to be highlighted Sunday.
Against the Colts, the Vikings' defensive plan was to put Winfield one-on-one with veteran Marvin Harrison. Winfield did an outstanding job, holding Harrison to just one reception and grabbing an interception. But on the other side of the ball, it was a far different story. Griffin was often locked up with Gonzalez, who had a huge day and helped spark the Colts comeback. There has been talk during the week about switching Winfield from his natural side of the defense to the opposite side or to have him mirror Smith wherever he goes. The fact that these are even being discussed speaks to the impact that Smith has on a football game and the respect he receives from the opposition.
If the Vikings are going to get out of their funk that has them off to a 0-2 start, it is going to take a big effort on both sides of the ball and the ability to shut down the Panthers' biggest playmaker.
Matchup to watch: Smith vs. CBs
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