September 24, 2014

Steve Smith was synonymous with the Carolina Panthers for 13 seasons.

He has quickly established himself as the Baltimore Ravens' top receiver, and it also won't take him long to face his former team.

Possibly the greatest player in Carolina history, Smith will face the Panthers on Sunday in Baltimore.

After Carolina (2-1) made the decision to release Smith on March 13, it took less than 24 hours for Baltimore to sign him to a three-year deal. He has become Joe Flacco's top target with team highs of 18 catches and 290 yards.

"I never really imagined that I'd be in a different uniform," he said. "I never really thought that I'd be playing against the Panthers."

Smith is Carolina's all-time leader in receptions (836), yards receiving (12,197) and touchdowns (67).

The move to get rid of one of Carolina's most admired players wasn't welcomed by its fans. A seven-year-old fan named Gavin was seen crying upon learning of the news of Smith's release in a YouTube video that became so popular that Smith eventually met the child in person to console him.

Smith said he has moved on.

"I think for every man that tries to earn a living despite the amount of money, you always try to go to work doing (more), always trying to give them more than they pay you," Smith said. "And when things don't work well, unless you obviously hate your job, nobody walks out going, 'Yay, I just got fired!'"

One of the reasons Smith chose Baltimore is because it's about a one-hour flight to Charlotte, where his family continues to live.

Carolina first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin has been spectacular in supplanting Smith as the team's No. 1 receiver with 253 yards and two scores. The Panthers could also get back Jerricho Cotchery from a one-game absence due to a hamstring injury.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in the offseason that the 35-year-old Smith had lost his "top-end speed." Rivera didn't take too kindly to questions Wednesday about facing Smith.

"We all know who Steve is and we know what Steve's done," Rivera said. "He's had a great career, he's assimilated very well to Baltimore, he's doing a great job for them. But after that, we're playing the Ravens."

Rivera has his own concerns since his team's rushing attack is the fourth-worst in the NFL with 72.3 yards per game. The Panthers turned in their worst rushing effort in two seasons with 42 yards in last Sunday's 37-19 defeat to Pittsburgh.

Cam Newton has 26 yards rushing in two games since missing the opener due to a rib injury. He hasn't looked very mobile and is on pace to rush for 384 yards, well behind his career average of 677.

''We know he is a big part of what we do,'' Rivera said. ''The thing it shows is we can't rely on him all of the time. Now we have to find other answers and other ways to (run the ball) - and the coaching staff is working on that.''

The running game should get a boost with the expected return of DeAngelo Williams, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and is back at practice.

However, backup Jonathan Stewart attempted to practice Friday with a sprained knee but Rivera didn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing, saying ''he didn't have what he needed as a running back.''

Baltimore (2-1) is yielding 89.7 rushing yards per game for the league's eighth-best mark, but it's wary of the threat that Carolina poses.

"They're physical, they want to run the ball," coach John Harbaugh said. "They're a big challenge for us, they're probably going to watch the tape and think they can run the ball on us."

The Ravens will be without tight end Dennis Pitta, who is out for the year due to a dislocated right hip suffered in last Sunday's 23-21 win at Cleveland. Owen Daniels, who has a team-best two TD catches, takes over as the starter.

Baltimore has been solid with 137.0 rushing yards per game after rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro had 91 with a TD last weekend. The Panthers played last weekend without defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been removed from the roster in the wake of his domestic violence case, and they allowed 264 rushing yards to the Steelers for the highest total by any team this year.

Flacco will have a new blocker on his blind side in rookie James Hurst, who replaces Eugene Monroe at left tackle. Monroe will be sidelined for several weeks following knee surgery.

The Panthers are without All-Pro fullback Mike Tolbert, who will miss at least eight games with a hairline fracture in his left leg suffered against Pittsburgh.

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