How Steve Smith's Versatility Fuels the Panthers' Passing Game

David Banks

A lot of parallels can be drawn between the 2000 Carolina Panthers and the 2012 incarnation of the team. Both teams were coming off an encouraging season spurred by an offensive resurgence but were let down by a porous defense. Both teams improved defensively but struggled to find consistency on offense. After slow starts both teams finished strong to end the year with a 7-9 mark.

In the off-season, both teams had some holes to fill, chief among them being a second receiver to line across from their star wide-out. The 2012 Panthers chose to look in-house for a second option. The 2000 Panthers found theirs in the third round of the NFL Draft when they took a small play-maker out of Utah named Steve Smith.

On Draft day, Smith was seen primarily as a kick returner who may be able to develop into a threat out of the slot in due time. At 5-foot-9, 189, he was seen as a guy who could stretch the defense with his 4.4 speed, but not one who could operate as a team's featured receiver.

What those draft experts were missing out on was Smith's toughness. Though he certainly has had his fair share of injuries, Smith has never shied away from taking hits and going over the middle for tough catches. And with a 38-inch vertical, Smith has been a red zone threat throughout his career.

It's that versatility that has set Smith apart from the returner/receiver archetype that has pervaded the NFL in the last decade-plus. Baltimore's Torrey Smith has flashed big-play ability but hasn't shown the toughness or consistency to match Smith's accomplishments. The same could be said about his teammate Jacoby Jones, Chicago's Devin Hester, and older examples like Dante Hall. Even a guy like Wes Welker, who has made multiple Pro Bowls, doesn't threaten the defense all over the field like Number 89.

Take, for example, Smith's game against the Falcons last December. The following is a representation of every route run by Smith that game overlaid on one image. (The green circles represent receptions and the red represents incomplete targets.)


Smith runs routes and catches passes all over the field -- short over the middle, deep over the middle, intermediate routes on the left sideline, short routes on the right sideline, etc. He puts pressure on the entire defense because he can run every route on the route tree: Because of Smith's speed, which is still elite at age 34, the 9-route is always a threat. But if a corner plays off-coverage, that opens up the three-step passing game (slants, hitches and hooks) which Smith can turn into big gains. If the corner presses, he has the physicality to beat the press.

But Smith's most dangerous route is the deep dig (the 4-route on the route tree). Smith has been running this route since his breakout season in 2005. How many times have you seen Smith catch a ball about 15 yards down the middle of the field, put a move on a helpless defender and turn up-field for a large chunk of yardage? Too many to count.

The answer's the same for opposing defensive coordinators. And with all the attention on Smith, the Panthers' other receivers have feasted on underneath routes -- most notably Brandon LaFell. The Panthers run the deep dig out of a variety of personal groupings and formations, but the route combinations are usually the same.


Smith will run the deep dig at 15 yards. A decoy receiver will run a streak to clear out the safety. And the second receiver will run a shallow cross to put pressure on the defenders over the middle.

If the shallow cross draws their attention, Newton has an easy throw to Smith (see the play at 0:40 in the video below); if they drop deep, the receiver on the shallow cross (usually LaFell) is wide open with some breathing room to turn and run for a big gain (2:55).

Smith scored a touchdown on his first NFL touch back in 2001 and hasn't stopped making plays in a variety of ways ever since. Unfortunately those 2001 Panthers finished with a 1-15 record. Carolina fans are hoping for the parallels between the 2000 and 2012 teams to end before the team gets to that point; but if they don't, there's yet another elite pass rusher available at the top of the draft from a Carolina school. Just saying.

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