FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Panthers receiver Steve Smith will face off with the Patriots for the fourth time in his illustrious career, and it looks like he could be tested by the best cornerback on the Patriots roster, Aqib Talib.
After missing the past three games with a hip injury, Talib returned to practice on Thursday as a limited participant. He spoke to the media on Thursday -- usually indicative that a player will be available on game day.
"Just that competitive nature, man," Talib said of Smith. "He brings it every Sunday or Monday or whenever the game is. Steve gonna bring it, man. I think [when] you're competitive like that, you're gonna be pretty successful."
Smith has stood the test of time. He has caught 13 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns in his four career games against the Patriots; those aren't earth-shattering numbers, but they're indicative of his explosive nature.
It's been nearly 10 full years since the Patriots were first acquainted with Smith, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick says not a lot has changed over the years.
"He's not returning punts and kickoffs, but he's very competitive. He's still a tough guy to handle. He's very strong for his size. He's a shorter player but he's stocky, he's thick, he has good balance. He's tough, he's hard to bring down. He has strong hands, you can see him really reach out there and take the ball aggressively. He has good quickness and run after the catch ability is still good. He's taken some shorter passes and broken some tackles or beaten guys in the open field. He's a tough guy to handle. His playing strength, his quickness, his speed, his experience -- but just his competitiveness. He's a tough, competitive player. The bigger the situation, the more he wants to be out there and step up and take the shot, so to speak. I have a lot of respect for Steve Smith and I think he's still very effective in that role for the Panthers. He's a good player. I think he brings a lot of heart and toughness to their team."
Tough is one way to describe him. Competitive is another. Either way, those traits manifest themselves on the field time and time again.
Smith's strong hands have made him a reliable target on third down, where he has converted 11 for a first down.
The coverage couldn't have been much better from Vikings rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes, but Smith was able to use his quickness and strength to fight through the contact for the catch. His concentration was incredible to bat the pass to himself and make the catch as he tumbled to the ground.
His competitive style of play shines through when he's fighting through contact, but that fiery nature comes out other ways, as well.
"Steve, he do his talking on the field," said Talib. "I mean, you've got a lot of guys who do a lot of talking to you guys, and we get out there, and they don't say too much on the field. Steve is definitely one of those guys, he's gonna do [his talking] on the field."
Will Talib fire back?
"Yeah, I'll say a couple words."
Smith may do a lot of his talking on the field, but a lot of his play does the talking.
Up against Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in Week 1, the All Pro cornerback could be seen backpedaling before the snap, giving Smith some cushion on the outside with the Seahawks in Cover 3.
Smith ran a corner route to the sideline, and by the time he had made his break, he was already away from Sherman's coverage. The linebacker underneath wasn't deep enough to provide help, giving Cam Newton a big enough window to thread the pass through.
Smith went down and made the grab on the sideline to keep the drive alive.
The veteran receiver doesn't have the long speed he once had, but his quickness is still very much in-tact. He's caught just one pass that traveled 20 yards or more through the air this season, as opposed to a combined 26 over the past two years.
The Patriots are well aware of Smith's run-after-catch ability. So is Talib. He was victimized on a 37-yard touchdown pass in Week 2 of the 2010 season.
The Buccaneers sent a blitz after quarterback Matt Moore, but the rush didn't get home in time, leaving Talib on an island in the slot against Smith.
In Smith's heyday, that was not a spot you wanted to be. He's not busting long gains after the catch as frequently these days, but he's still a threat over the middle for his quickness and ability to create separation for his quarterback.
Talib has been building an All-Pro season with shutdown-level performances against top-tier receivers. His next challenge, while no longer one of the top receivers in the game, still brings a variety of skills to the table.
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