TAMPA BAY, Fla. - The Carolina Panthers got back to what they're supposed to do best Sunday in their 28-21 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They're again running the ball effectively.
But is that coming at the expense of Steve Smith, the Panthers' Pro Bowl receiver?
"I'm no longer an asset to this team," Smith told The Observer in a brief interview. "That's all there is to say."
Smith had one reception for 4 yards against the Bucs, a team he has six career 100-plus yard games against. It came in the fourth quarter, the only pass in the Panthers' 16-play, game-winning drive.
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It was such a short, possession-oriented pass from Jake Delhomme to Smith, that Bucs coach Raheem Morris characterized it as a run.
Smith was double-teamed by the Bucs for most of the game, but that's nothing unusual. It's normal to see a cornerback line up against Smith, then a safety drift over to support him right before the play begins.
But in past years, Smith has managed to put up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers despite all the defensive attention.
This season, he has 21 catches for 259 yards, his longest a 28-yarder against Atlanta. He's on pace to catch 63 passes, his lowest in a non-injury season since 2002 (his first year as a full-time receiver) when he had 54.
This season's most glaring statistic, however, is Smith's touchdown number: Zero.
In fact, the Panthers' only scoring receptions this season have come from tight ends (two apiece by Jeff King and Dante Rosario).
The Panthers tried to get Smith involved early Sunday. On the game's third play, Delhomme overthrew him on a deep ball. Same thing on the Panthers' second possession, when Delhomme against missed Smith deep.
"When they're doubling Steve and they're playing a lot of coverage, there is not a lot there," said Delhomme, who completed 9 of 17 passes for 65 yards. "Two guys are committed to him every play. We were trying to take some shots down the field, but it's difficult. That's when you've got to run the football."
Still, Smith said he was pleased how the Panthers were able to win the game on that run-dominated final drive.
"They were blowing some folks up, they did a great job," Smith said of the offensive line and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. "That's the strength of our team. We run the ball."
Knockdown, thrown out. For a second straight week, the Panthers' punt-return team was involved in a bizarre play.
But this one, near the end of the first half, did not go the Panthers' way.
Carolina's Dante Wesley drilled Tampa Bay returner Clifton Smith - who had not called for a fair catch - before he caught the ball. Wesley was ejected from the game, and Smith did not return after sustaining a concussion.
Angry Tampa Bay players charged Wesley and surrounded him after the play. As Wesley's teammates ran to help, a bench-clearing fight appeared to be unfolding. But things quickly cleared up.
Wesley, who spent the rest of the afternoon in the locker room watching the game on television, said he mistimed his hit on Smith.
"He never fair-(caught) the ball, so I was just trying to play," said Wesley. "It's not like I tried to deliberately hurt anybody. That's not even me. It just so happened that I hit him. My prayers go out with him."
Last week, in a victory against Washington Redskins, the Panthers recovered a muffed punt after Carolina's Quinton Teal blocked the Redskins' Byron Westbrook into teammate Antwaan Randle El, who had called for a fair catch.
Wesley said in watching film of Smith, it often appears that he's going to signal for a fair catch, then doesn't.
"The first time we punted, he kind of fake fair-caught the ball," Wesley said. "I was kind of slow reacting to it."
Wesley, a backup defensive back who has been a regular on special teams for most of his nine seasons with the Panthers, hopes he won't be suspended or fined for the play.
"I hope not," he said. "You can check my record. I've never really tried to hurt anybody. I've never tried to take a cheap shot on anybody. That's not even me."
But he was surprised he was only player penalized, especially after the Bucs rushed toward him after the play.
"How could I be the only one being ejected (just) because I tried to make a play?" he said. "They came toward me. I didn't go in their face and try to say something aggressive toward them. When the other team came toward me like that, I felt like the ref could've looked at the situation a lot differently."
Beason speaks. Linebacker Jon Beason spoke with reporters for the first time about his comments on defensive Julius Peppers two weeks ago on WFNZ radio. Beason said then he was going to talk to Peppers improving his effort. Beason eventually decided not to.
"We didn't have the conversation," said Beason. "It's over. I'm moving forward. I apologized for it. I shouldn't have said it. Because of the negative coverage of the way it was intended, I should not have said that. Especially because I'm a captain of this team."
Peppers had 2.0 sacks Sunday and has 5.0 for the season. He's on pace for 16.0, which would be a career high.
Inactive. Rookie Mike Goodson was inactive Sunday and now has missed two consecutive games after suffering a concussion against Dallas. Kenneth Moore again returned kicks in Goodson's place, averaging 19.7 yards on three returns. Other inactives: Running back Tyrell Sutton, cornerback C.J. Wilson, tackle Garry Williams, guard Duke Robinson and defensive end Hilee Taylor. A.J. Feeley was the third quarterback.
Kick start. The first half was a bad one for field-goal kickers. The Panthers' John Kasay had a 52-yard attempt blocked - his first miss of the season. Tampa Bay's Shane Andrus came up short on a 43-yarder.