CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme wants to air it out for wide receiver Steve Smith, he really does.
But when opponents admit to placing the highest premium on keeping him in check, his own teammates fall short of providing disincentive for doing so and the running game works as well as it has, the Panthers have found themselves in a familiar spot.
There are times this looks like the 2005 Panthers offense, with Smith not getting much help from the other receivers. That was the year he caught 103 balls, but the other starting wideout (Keary Colbert) had just 25, allowing teams to dog-pile Smith at will.
Delhomme grinned and acknowledged the point, but was quick to point out how different this team is.
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"Yeah, but we didn't run as effectively in 2005 as we do now," Delhomme said "And you didn't have Moose (wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad). Moose is still making plays. But teams, that's what they want to do to us, they want to take away Steve and make us run -- but it's worked OK."
The Panthers are 9-3 without much in the way of a passing game, at least a non-Smith passing game. They've run the ball 31 times more than they've passed, on target with coach John Fox's philosophy. Delhomme admitted "as long as John's here that's what we're going to be -- it's been proven to win."
But facing a Tampa Bay team that has allowed one rushing touchdown all year, they know they're going to have to make plays in the passing game to win, and it's been much harder than they anticipated.
Since the Panthers are running so well (133.4 yards per game now, compared to 104.9 in 2005) and scoring points, it's perhaps a quibble to fret over the inefficiencies of the passing game. But the warning signs remain.
It's becoming apparent their offseason moves aren't paying off as they'd hoped, as Muhammad is suddenly looking like a 35-year-old again and D.J. Hackett is not looking like much of anything at all.
Muhammad has 47 catches for 651 yards and four touchdowns -- respectable enough. The problem is, the bulk of that came in the first half of the season (including the two games Smith was suspended). Muhammad had 29 catches for 426 yards and two scores in the first six games, but just 18 for 225 yards and two scores in the last six. Perhaps most telling are his yards-per-catch averages (14.7 per catch in the first six, 12.5 since). He hasn't topped 50 yards in a game since the first meeting with the Bucs on Oct. 12.
Similarly, the Panthers have gotten next to nothing from the committee of Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett. Since the end of Smith's two-game suspension, when one or the other has been active for games, Hackett and Jarrett have added 11 catches for 131 yards and no touchdowns.
Compare that to Tampa, where third wideout Ike Hilliard has 36 catches for 331 yards and four scores, playing behind starters Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton.
That's why opponents will freely admit that shutting down Smith is usually the first step. Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden declared Thursday that Smith gave him "nightmares, ... he's like Freddy Krueger, he scares the hell out of me."
Delhomme said that despite their famed "Tampa-2" scheme, which splits safeties deep to keep everything in front of them, the Bucs have adjusted. He said he's seeing more looks with a single high safety, so the other one shades Smith's way.
"I think, as you guys know covering them, that if you take him out of the football game, they are a different football team," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Playing these guys twice a year, we understand that challenge. But at the same time, you still have to respect what he can do to you.
"Obviously, they have other playmakers. Our focus going into this game is to stop the run, stop DeAngelo (Williams). He's been on a tear here recently. Like any team, you love your explosive players. They're no different than anybody else in that regard. They just happen to have one of the best players in the world to do it with. You understand that they are going to get their plays, but you know that you can't give up those explosion plays to Steve Smith, and try to make them beat you other ways."
As a result, finding some help for Smith is paramount to the Panthers' offensive hopes down the stretch.
Smith shrugged when asked if he was getting enough help to draw attention away, saying: "That's a difficult one to answer. I think there are different times overall when receivers overall have been needed."
He'd like more balls thrown his way, naturally, but he understands Carolina's system as well. And he knows that his career hit a crossroads in the 2005 NFC Championship Game, when the Seahawks ganged up on him, hitting him with linebackers early before passing off to a corner and a safety deeper downfield.
"I think my life pretty much changed, as far as me running man-to-man routes after the Seattle game," Smith said. "After that, I pretty much have learned things are going to be different and they have been since then. That Seattle game really kind of left a bad taste in my mouth for a number of reasons."
Part of the Panthers plan since has been to throw it his way regardless. Last week, Smith had a Packers linebacker chasing along with cornerback Charles Woodson when he made an over-the-shoulder miracle catch that set up the game-winning touchdown. Delhomme's never been afraid to offer one up, and this year is no different. "In those situations, you've got to cut it loose and let it go -- we've got guys who can make plays, and 89's one of them," Delhomme said.
The only difference is that having a better running game allows him to minimize some of those risks. Asked if he thought he'd be getting more from his alternate receiving targets this year, Delhomme hedged, ultimately falling back on the overall favorable results.
"Before the season you'd like to say yeah," he replied. "But then I don't know, how many rushing touchdowns do we have? (19) Is that a record here, or close? That's a lot. We're running the ball effectively; I think we've got two outstanding running backs. So you say yes and no.
"We've done some good things in the pass game, some good things in the run game. Have we hit them at the same time? I don't think we've done that yet. I think we're on our way. We've done what we needed to do, and that's the biggest thing. That's something that I'm proud of."