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 at Raymond James Stadium. 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 four 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.
It was such a short, possession-oriented pass from Jake Delhomme to Smith, that Bucs coach Raheem Morris characterized it as a run.
"We (couldn't) let Steve Smith go with a completion," Morris said.
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."
Smith has had his moments this season, but their impact weren't exactly headline makers. Against Washington last week, he made a tough, over-the-middle reception in which he took a huge hit, a key play in the Panthers' comeback. Later against the Redskins, he caught a two-point conversion pass after Jonathan Stewart's game-winning touchdown run.
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."