Charles Tillman had his man covered this time. It was late in the first quarter of the Carolina-Chicago NFC divisional playoff on Sunday, and the Bears' cornerback shadowed Panthers wideout Steve Smith down the right side of the field. When Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme rainbowed the ball toward Smith, Tillman outleaped the receiver for the slightly underthrown pass as safety Chris Harris converged on the play. Tillman got both hands on the ball, but by the time he and Smith tumbled to the ground at the Chicago two-yard line, Smith had wrestled the ball away. ¬∂ Back on the game's second play from scrimmage Tillman had bit on a Delhomme pump fake, and Smith had sprinted free, hauling in a pass at the Bears' 26, eluding safety Mike Brown at the 10 and strolling into the end zone for a 58-yard touchdown. Now this--a 46-yard completion that led to a field goal, putting the visiting Panthers up 10-0 in a game they'd go on to win 29-21. Against the second-best defense in the NFL, Smith would finish with 12 catches for 218 yards, including a 39-yarder in the third quarter for his second TD. No wonder he has a Superman logo tattooed on his left arm.
Though his team lacks a bona fide No. 2 receiver and a lethal running game, Smith, a five-year veteran out of Utah, still led the league this season in receiving yards (1,563) and tied for first in catches (103) and touchdown receptions (12). Like most of the Panthers' other opponents, Chicago used a variety of coverages against Smith, to no avail. "He torched Chicago's great defense," marveled Panthers safety Mike Minter. "The only way to stop him is hope and pray he doesn't show up." Don't bet on Smith's missing the NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field this Sunday.
And don't figure on Seattle coming up with a coverage the All-Pro wideout hasn't already beaten. While Smith most often encounters the popular cover 2 scheme, he occasionally gets triple-teamed, with a linebacker joining a cornerback and a safety. "Anyway you can double him, we've seen it," says offensive coordinator Dan Henning. "Anyway you can try to take him away, we've seen it."
All bad news for the Seahawks, who had the league's 25th-ranked pass defense and have struggled to hold even mediocre wideouts in check. The seven catches for 103 yards and a touchdown by Washington Redskins All-Pro wideout Santana Moss in the Skins' 20-10 divisional-round loss last Saturday was a typical performance against Seattle. The Seahawks focus on preventing the long pass, which allows completions underneath the coverage or across the middle. Smith causes problems against that sort of pass defense because of his tailbacklike running skills in the open field--he led the NFL in yards after the catch this season (7.9 per reception). He's also a threat on the end-around play (three carries against the Bears for 26 yards, a 12-yard touchdown run against the New York Giants in a wild-card playoff win) and even runs back punts. Smith ranked fourth in the league with a 10.6-yard average on 27 returns, three of which went for more than 20 yards.
It may seem as if Smith came out of nowhere this year--he had only 10 touchdowns total in his four previous seasons--but he had 88 catches in 2003 before missing 15 games in '04 with a broken left fibula. The injury convinced him that he couldn't rely solely on his physical ability, so once healthy he worked on becoming a more polished receiver, by practicing running more precise routes, for example. "I pick and choose where I use my speed," says Smith, who shared the 2005 Comeback Player of the Year award with New England's Tedy Bruschi. "You don't have to run 100 miles per hour to be open."
Even coming off a career year, Smith acts as if he has something to prove. Says Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas, "He plays with a chip on his shoulder, which helps him. He probably has the biggest heart in the game. He goes across the middle. He doesn't care who's [covering him]. He's going to go up and get that ball."