HOUSTON – Steve Smith isn't a name that trumpets greatness. The Super Bowl is a perfect opportunity to give the Smith the name recognition that he has come to deserve.
With a great regular season, Smith showed how much he has developed as a receiver. He has made the Pro Bowl with his work on special teams, but he wants to show that he is a great receiver. And he is right on the verge of doing that.
For starters, Smith has dominated in the playoffs. In a scheme that does he and his fellow receivers few favors as far as allowing them to impact the game, he has contributed some big, back-breaking plays: a 70-yarder against Dallas, a 32-yard touchdown against Dallas and of course the 69-yard touchdown to start – and end – double overtime at St. Louis.
In the Super Bowl, big plays like those should be hard to come by. Each team might only get one or two opportunities, and the one that converts most likely will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. New England will have to put so many people at the line of scrimmage in an effort to take away the running game that Smith should be in one-on -one coverage. If he can make a play outside, Smith should have just one guy he needs to elude.
If Smith can create a big play or two against the New England secondary – or with a punt return – people will learn who he is in a hurry.
Bill Belichick will work to shut down Smith, but he will not lose focus on the other receivers. He knows Smith is the big-play guy, but he isn't nave. He's one of the best coaches in the NFL because he puts his players in positions where they can be successful. They won't take Muhsin Muhammad for granted.
Physically, Muhammad has the advantage over Tyrone Poole. Now Poole will probably guard Muhammad all over the field, but Jake Delhomme has done a great job of heaving jump balls to Muhammad while the defender doesn't get a chance. Muhammad has 6 inches on Poole, and he is familiar with Poole from their time as Carolina teammates in 1996 and 1997.
In the red zone, the Patriots will have to be careful for the lob. In the middle of the field, Muhammad likes to run slant patterns, three or four steps and a diagonal cut to the center. It's a great play to counter the blitz because it gets the ball out of Delhomme's hands in a hurry.
New England won't fall asleep on Ricky Proehl, either. Proehl has made a career out of punishing those who do. A member of the St. Louis team that lost to the Patriots two years ago, Proehl yearns for another chance to beat the Pats. He won't get many on Sunday, but look for him to capitalize when he does.
Defensive coordinators and people around the league respect his ability to impact games. Don't look at the numbers (only one playoff catch this season), but look at the intangibles Proehl brings. OK, here's one number to look at: Proehl has 50 career receiving touchdowns. That's too much production to overlook.
Carolina got only five catches from these guys in its win over Philadelphia. It will need to make some big plays against New England, and those will come through the passing game. That said, the Patriots want to get the lead early and make these three and Jake Delhomme try to beat them.