CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Coming off the best game of his career, Carolina's Steve Smith is ready to establish himself among the NFL's elite receivers.
He'll get his chance on one of the biggest stages in football - a Monday night game against the Green Bay Packers - and said he's up for the challenge.
"On Monday night you don't have any competition. If you do good, you're the only one, and if you do bad, you're the only one," he said Thursday. "A lot of people are watching. For some people that's a lot of pressure. For me, it isn't."
Smith has just one real memory from his last Monday night appearance - breaking his leg in the closing minutes of last season's opener, a 24-14 loss to the Packers.
The injury cost him the entire season, but Smith worked hard to come back this year in top form. His 23 catches tie him with Torry Holt for the NFL lead, and he set career highs last week in a loss to Miami with 11 catches for 170 yards and three touchdowns.
But where Smith really shined was in keeping his composure despite the goading of Miami defensive back Sam Madison the entire game. Madison verbally taunted Smith from the first series and twice got physical with him, drawing two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
A year ago, Smith would have lost his cool and done something foolish in retaliation. He does have a history of blowing up, including beating up a teammate during a film session in 2002 and drawing a costly penalty for kicking a Houston player in a 2003 loss to the Texans.
But Smith managed to ignore Madison, a testament to a maturity gained while sitting out last season.
"A couple of years ago, I probably would have taken a shot at (Madison)," Smith said. "But I just look at that as a compliment from the other team to show that they feel they've got to do things to get (me) rattled because, if not, they know they're in for a long day."
Smith is finally earning a reputation for his on-field play. Until recently, he was better known for those hot-tempered explosions.
Before cornerback Ken Lucas signed with the Panthers, he spent time asking about the team. He was told more than once that he would have trouble with Smith and the two would not get along.
Sure enough, it didn't take long before the two were jawing at each other in training camp, with Smith talking trash every time he caught a ball while Lucas was covering him.
After seeing Smith play live, Lucas can appreciate the intensity Smith brings to the game.
"I know he wants the ball every play," Lucas said. "That's any great competitor. You want to make the plays, you want to be the guy to help the team win. He has that attitude. He has like an energy attitude where he wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line."
Smith initially came into the league as a kick returner and made it to the Pro Bowl his rookie season. But he was determined to play receiver, fighting doubters who claimed he was too small at 5-foot-9 to be effective.
He got his chance when the Panthers hired coach John Fox and has emerged as one of the top receivers in the game. Smith said he's used his size to do so.
"My best quality is my height," he said. "A lot of people think my height is a disadvantage: 'He's only 5-9, he's not capable of all of those things that they say that they ask of other receivers.' I feel I am."
If Smith needed proof, he gets it every week when he draws the opponent's best defender and often gets double-teamed. He said he finally realized he arrived when Washington's Champ Bailey followed Smith all over the field in 2003.
But Smith's success has come at a price for the rest of the receivers. Quarterback Jake Delhomme is so keyed in on Smith, no one else is catching any balls. Smith has 23 catches, while the rest of the receivers have a combined six.
More alarming is that No. 2 receiver Keary Colbert has just two grabs, none in the past two games.
Fox doesn't think the discrepancy is very important.
"It doesn't really matter who gets the ball as long as you're being productive in the passing game," Fox said. "We had three touchdown passes (against Miami). We'll take that in most outings."
The Panthers are comfortable right now with Smith and feel he gives them the best chance to win.
"He's a great competitor," Lucas said. "He's one of the best wide receivers in the game. He's a game-breaker. When you get the ball in his hands, he can take it to the house on any given play. He's a very exciting player to watch."
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