Slowing Smith a Tall Order
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

The last time Steve Smith visited St. Louis, he left more than a sour taste in the mouths of most everyone in attendance at the Edward Jones Dome.

In the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs, the Rams and Panthers did battle in one of the most exciting and back and forth games in St. Louis history. After trading blows in overtime, Smith caught a pass over the middle and raced through the secondary on his way to a game winning 69-yard touchdown catch.

That play propelled Carolina to the NFC Championship before a loss in the Super Bowl to New England.

It also elevated Smithís status from little known speedster to full on superstar wideout. When Smith and Co. return to the Gateway City on Sunday in the season opener, Smith says that play will be nothing but a distant memory.

ďAs far as what happened last time I was there, that was like four years ago,Ē Smith said. ďSo itís time to get over it. Itís a memorable play for myself, for the organization. But I donít want to sell myself short or promote it too high.Ē

Thatís because Smith has seemingly done nothing but make plays of that caliber since that day. Entering his seventh season, Smith has been to two consecutive Pro Bowls after missing all but one game of the 2004 season because of a broken left fibula.

In the ensuing seasons, Smith has posted a combined 2,729 receiving yards to go with 22 total touchdowns.

At 5í9, Smith isnít the biggest receiver, but thereís no doubt that covering him is a tall order for a Rams secondary that is extremely young with the exception of safety Corey Chavous.

ďThe guy gets doubled almost every play, makes acrobatic catches, great run after the catch, tough, hard-nosed, good blocker,Ē defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. ďIf you look at him on tape, he has all the qualities. Heís not the biggest guy but jumps as high as the roof, has unbelievable hands, runs great routes. Heís a great player.Ē

Going into the 2007 season, the Rams are working without their most experienced cornerback, veteran Fakhir Brown who is out for the first four games because of a suspension.

That leaves second-year man Tye Hill as the primary cover corner and player most likely to be matched up against Smith on Sunday.

Hill has mixed memories of the last time he met Smith, when the teams played on Nov. 19 of last year in a 15-0 Carolina win.

That was the day Hill officially became the starter and never relinquished the job in his rookie season. For the most part, Smith wasnít able to get loose, but he did make an impressive catch for a 62-yard touchdown in double coverage down the sideline though Hill wasnít one of the two defenders.

ďHe caught one on us last year and we had two guys on him,Ē Haslett said. ďHe just out-jumped our safety and made the play. I donít know if you can completely stop him but you have to try and slow him down.Ē

According to Smith, Hill believed that he did just that against Smith in their previous meeting. To Smithís recollection, Hill had a conversation with Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams after the game in which he indicated to Williams that he had shut down Smith in the game though Smith finished with 90 yards on four catches with the touchdown.

ďIt was after the game we played them,Ē Smith said. ďThey were in the same rookie class. He told DeAngelo something, DeAngelo told me and I have just been kind of marinating on it for a whole year.Ē

For Hillís part, though, he says itís not as big a deal as it might be made out to be. Although Hill doesnít remember the exact details of how the conversation with Williams went, he does understand that itís all part of the game and getting into the head of the opponent is a time-honored NFL tradition.

ďI donít remember (the conversation),Ē Hill said. ďHe is trying to call me out. Itís all good. I am ready to play. Thatís what the NFL is all about, entertainment. I am looking forward to playing him.Ē

Hill is not one to back away from a challenge and did have a solid outing against Smith and Carolina last year. In that game he did come up with an interception and held his own in coverage.

But donít expect him to be on his own on an island against Smith on Sunday. Chavous wouldnít reveal much of a game plan for how to contain Smith other than to say that itís a job that will take a team effort.

Haslett echoed those sentiments.

ďThere are a number of different ways to try and slow him down,Ē Haslett said. ďI donít know if you can completely stop him, but weíll try to do a better job than a couple teams in the past. He caught like 21 balls on somebody. Weíll try to not let him catch 21 on us.Ē

Of course, setting records and making memorable catches isnít anything new to Smith, who has set his goal for this season at 2,000 receiving yards which would be an NFL record by quite a bit.

Many scoff at Smithís goal of reaching 2,000 yards but Smith isnít concerned what others think so much as trying to improve his ever expanding big play and record breaking resume.

ďPeople may laugh at it, but whatís wrong with having a goal that in my opinion if I work hard enough is a possible reach,Ē Smith said. ďIf I never get there then I never get there, but Iím not going to say Iím willing to settle for 1,000 yards. Everybody is getting 1,000 yards these days so why not try to really go for something that really means something.Ē

Now, itís up to the Rams to find a way to keep him from setting a record setting pace.