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 Smith’s 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.

“As far as what happened last time I was there, that was like four years ago,” Smith said. “So it’s time to get over it. It’s a memorable play for myself, for the organization. But I don’t want to sell myself short or promote it too high.”

That’s 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 5’9, Smith isn’t the biggest receiver, but there’s no doubt that covering him is a tall order for a Rams secondary that is extremely young with the exception of safety Corey Chavous.

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

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 wasn’t able to get loose, but he did make an impressive catch for a 62-yard touchdown in double coverage down the sideline though Hill wasn’t one of the two defenders.

“He caught one on us last year and we had two guys on him,” Haslett said. “He just out-jumped our safety and made the play. I don’t know if you can completely stop him but you have to try and slow him down.”

According to Smith, Hill believed that he did just that against Smith in their previous meeting. To Smith’s 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.

“It was after the game we played them,” Smith said. “They 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.”

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

“I don’t remember (the conversation),” Hill said. “He is trying to call me out. It’s all good. I am ready to play. That’s what the NFL is all about, entertainment. I am looking forward to playing him.”

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 don’t expect him to be on his own on an island against Smith on Sunday. Chavous wouldn’t reveal much of a game plan for how to contain Smith other than to say that it’s a job that will take a team effort.

Haslett echoed those sentiments.

“There are a number of different ways to try and slow him down,” Haslett said. “I don’t know if you can completely stop him, but we’ll try to do a better job than a couple teams in the past. He caught like 21 balls on somebody. We’ll try to not let him catch 21 on us.”

Of course, setting records and making memorable catches isn’t 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 Smith’s goal of reaching 2,000 yards but Smith isn’t concerned what others think so much as trying to improve his ever expanding big play and record breaking resume.

“People may laugh at it, but what’s wrong with having a goal that in my opinion if I work hard enough is a possible reach,” Smith said. “If I never get there then I never get there, but I’m not going to say I’m 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.”

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