Despite the big year the Carolina Panthers are having, their passing game has stalled to a certain extent. Carolina is just not producing big plays through the air. In fact, their 25 passing plays resulting in a gain of 20 or more yards rates last in the NFL. The next worst team is Washington with 32.
These struggles can probably be traced to some degree to the decline of Steve Smith. The three time All Pro is still Carolina's leading receiver. He still frankly would probably be the best receiver on the team if the Jets had him. It also seem like he is losing the speed that turned him into such an explosive weapon for much of his career. The film suggests it. So do his numbers. Smith only has 3 receptions resulting in at least 20 yards after having 17 in 2012 and 29 in 2011.
With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how much respect the Jets give him deep with either a banged up Antonio Cromartie or Ellis Lankster, who reportedly will get the nod if Cromartie cannot go. It seems like the Jets recently have been giving their corners plenty of cushion and with good reason. The secondary has been porous and beaten deep too frequently. Giving the receivers too much cushion too frequently comes with obvious drawbacks. It essentially concedes short completions and creates a situation on defense of death by one thousand cuts.
How much respect will the Jets pay Smith? Carolina also uses speedster and Jets killer Ted Ginn, Jr. at receiver some. Will they allow the Panthers to complete the short stuff? That might be a problem. Given the strength of Carolina's defense and the Jets' suspect offense, Gang Green really cannot afford to be a bend but don't break defense. The Jets have to give their offense as easy of a job as possible by winning the field position battle. That means forcing three and outs. When they do challenge the receivers, can the coverage hold up?
These are questions that will loom large on Sunday.