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Saturday, October 4, 2008
Scouts Inc.: Smith's return sends Panthers' offense surging

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Doug Kretz

With Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith back from suspension, no one is happier than fellow wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Panthers' ground game appears stronger than it has at any time since 2003, running back Stephen Davis' last season with the club. And it took all of one game with Smith back in the fold to get the passing game hitting on all cylinders.

It's no coincidence that Delhomme's only touchdown pass over the first three games went to a tight end -- nor is it coincidence that he delivered two to perimeter targets (one each to Smith and Muhammad) upon Smith's return last week. Smith and Muhammad complement each other well, and their presence is important because the quality of Delhomme's weapons drop off significantly from there. Since 2004, the end of Muhammad's first tour in Carolina, Smith had been the team's only legitimate downfield threat and was more easily contained by rolled coverages (a corner with safety help over the top). The reacquisition of Muhammad forces opponents to respect the threat on the other side of the field, and Smith does the same for Muhammad.

Muhammad lacks Smith's top-end speed, but he's very physical, especially in a crowd. He's also sure-handed and runs precise routes, which can be extremely helpful to Delhomme when Smith is contained or the pass rush breaks through. Many NFL passing schemes require a quarterback to go through a progression to find an open target, and the passer wastes precious moments looking for a receiver who isn't in the exact spot he should be on a particular route. And because he knows exactly where Muhammad will be, Delhomme now has a safety valve he can depend on when all else fails.

The resurgence of Carolina's run game has only enhanced Delhomme's effectiveness. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart give the team two quality rushers who can pound the ball and move the chains. Williams has more elusiveness and lateral range, but Stewart is a punisher with more raw power. Both have the speed to go the distance after getting past the first level of defense. Most importantly, both show patience, read blocks well and locate run lanes -- crucial tools for runners in a power zone blocking scheme. Stewart is a reliable enough receiver, but Williams plays more in obvious passing situations because he's experienced and quicker to react in blitz pickups.

In a perfect world, offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson would maintain a 50/50 run/pass ratio, and through four games the Panthers are pretty close. An effective run game allows Davidson, rather than the down and distance, to dictate his play calling. Defenses are constantly analyzing the tendencies and anticipating the moves of offenses, so when Carolina opponents have no better odds than a coin flip when guessing run or pass, it's always risky for them to load up one way or the other.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.