Where did Steve Smith's catches go?

CHARLOTTE - It's not hard to imagine how Steve Smith could feel, as he said after Sunday's 28-21 win against Tampa Bay, that he's "no longer an asset" to the Carolina Panthers.

His slow start is hitting historic proportions - for him, that is.

In his eight years as a starting receiver, Smith never before has played his first five games without scoring a touchdown or catching a pass of at least 50 yards.

He has 21 catches, and his longest reception this season went for 28 yards and his only points came on a two-point conversion.

Excluding 2004, when he suffered a season-ending injury in the opening game, Smith has averaged nearly 400 yards receiving in his first five games, but has only 259 yards this year during Carolina's 2-3 start.

He narrowly missed being shut out against the Bucs, catching only a 4-yard pass on the Panthers' final drive.

Carolina did not intend to have an air show at Tampa on a day when they focused on their running game, but they definitely wanted to get the ball to Smith. Quarterback Jake Delhomme threw to him five times. On at least one other occasion, Smith was open deep for a potential TD, but Delhomme was being rushed and could not throw.

On Monday, coach John Fox said Smith serves as an asset because defenses are double-teaming him on virtually every play, creating opportunities for the running game and other receivers.

"I can't call the opponent and ask them not to do that," said Fox. "They get to do what they want."

But the Panthers have not been able to do what they want offensively, especially when it pertains to taking advantage of Smith's game-breaking skills. Delhomme has targeted Smith 46 times, but six of the passes were intercepted and 19 were incomplete.

Fox was asked Monday about two factors contributing to Smith's modest numbers:

- With Muhsin Muhammad at age 36, do the Panthers have a valid enough threat among their other receivers to keep defenses honest?

"Really, we have what we have," said Fox.

"Everybody in the league deals with it. It's not a matter of we've got this, we've got that. Not too many people have everything. You do the best with what you have.

"I think Moose has been productive, productive enough for us right now to be 2-3."

Muhammad leads the team with 22 catches, but his 9.3 yards-per-reception average is 4 yards below his career average.

- Double teams aside, how much have Delhomme's struggles contributed to the lack of productivity by Smith and Muhammad?

"We're not a finished product," said Fox. "I'm not too sure a lot of coaches around the league are professing to be. Every one of these (games) is a new adventure."

Fox avoided talking specifically about Delhomme, who ranks 33rd in the NFL in passing efficiency with a 56.8 rating and is tied with New York Jets rookie Mark Sanchez for most interceptions (10).

The good news for the Panthers is their running game finally caught fire against Tampa Bay, as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both exceeded 100 yards.

Smith may be in for another day of watching the backs run today when Buffalo comes to Bank of America Stadium. The Bills are last in the NFL in run defense and are fourth against the pass.

For Fox, there's comfort in sticking to the running game.

"Whenever you decide to throw the ball, there (are) more working parts," he said. "Would you rather shoot a 3-pointer outside with somebody wide open, or would you rather shoot a layup? Most guys would take the higher percentage route, and that's the layup."

Fox knows Smith best serves as an asset to the Panthers when he has the ball in his hands. But figuring out how to get it there seems to have an ever-increasing degree of difficulty.