Smith-Johnson combination key to Panthers' hopes

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- In last season's NFC championship game, a frustrated Steve Smith came to the sideline after a drive-killing incomplete pass and flashed four fingers, signaling he had been quadruple-teamed.

The Carolina Panthers' one-man receiving game had finally been exposed. The Seattle Seahawks held Smith to five catches for 33 yards and no touchdowns in their 34-14 win.

The Panthers are determined not to be so one-dimensional again. In the offseason, they signed 34-year-old Keyshawn Johnson, giving Carolina one of the top receiving combinations in the NFL, but also one of the most volatile.

As the Panthers begin a season many believe will end in Miami in February at the Super Bowl, the key may rest on whether Smith and Johnson -- two fiery competitors who have demanded the ball in the past -- can coexist.

Smith didn't play in a preseason game because of a strained left hamstring and an ingrown toenail. Smith was slowed by a strained right hamstring this week, but is hoping to play in Sunday's opener against Atlanta, which would be the first time he and Johnson would be together with quarterback Jake Delhomme.

So far the two have had fun with the questioning about two dominant personalities getting along.

"He'll get his catches, he doesn't have to worry about me," Johnson told a group of fans and sponsors at a luncheon last week. "If not, he'll certainly remind Jake in the huddle."

The crowd laughed, but Smith, who last year had 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns, figures to see his numbers go down, only because Johnson provides a viable second option missing last year, when no other receiver caught more than 25 passes. The former No. 1 overall pick also gives Carolina the solid blocker missing since Muhsin Muhammad signed with Chicago before the start of last season.

"They're going to work great together," said Delhomme, who will begin his fourth season as the Panthers' starter. "I don't think that's going to be a problem. We're all here for one thing, and that's to win. The best thing is we have more weapons."

Despite the focus on the receivers, defense-minded coach John Fox has always preferred to run the ball and he's turned to DeShaun Foster as the No. 1 running back for the first time. Foster took over for the injured Stephen Davis late last year and rushed for 151 yards against the Giants in the playoffs.

But Foster has been injury prone and missed the NFC championship game with a broken ankle. It was partly why Carolina drafted Memphis' DeAngelo Williams in the first round. The speedy Williams will see some time in the backfield, but will also return kickoffs. Williams had a 98-yard return for a touchdown in an exhibition game.

"He's been spending a lot of time at running back and the kicking game. He wants to be good," Fox said. "He's got good burst and a second gear."

The offensive line has a new, younger look, and could be a weak spot. Center Justin Hartwig was signed away from Tennessee to take over for the aging Jeff Mitchell. Evan Mathis replaced Tutan Reyes at right guard, but Delhomme was sacked four times in limited play in the preseason and the running backs struggled to find holes.

While much of the talk centers on Smith and Johnson, the Panthers' are expected to be anchored by their defense, which ranked No. 3 last year.

"If we go out there and play mistake-free football, it's going to be tough to beat us," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "I feel like we are in great condition and we are going to try to go out there and put on a good show."

Lucas and Chris Gamble give Carolina a fearsome cornerback duo. At safety, veteran Mike Minter returns and is joined by newcomer Shaun Williams.

The defensive line could be the best in the NFL, with freakish athlete Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker at the ends. The Panthers will have nearly 700 pounds at defensive tackle with former Pro Bowler Kris Jenkins, working his way back from knee surgery, and free-agent acquisition Maake Kemoeatu.

"They're already the best at what they do, I'm just trying to keep up at the pace they're going," said Kemoeatu, who had 70 tackles with Baltimore last season. "Kris has been teaching me some tricks, so he's a mentor for me."

Linebacker is an area of concern. Dan Morgan anchors the middle, but he has missed 25 games in five seasons because of injuries. When Will Witherspoon signed with St. Louis, Na'il Diggs was brought in to take over at outside linebacker, but has been slowed by a sprained knee. Thomas Davis, a safety last season, is expected to start at the other outside spot.

John Kasay is back for his 12th season as the Panthers' kicker and hit all 10 field goals this summer.

Much is expected of Carolina, perhaps even a Super Bowl title. But to do that, the Panthers must accomplish something for the first time in their 12-year history: back-to-back winning seasons. After reaching the Super Bowl in the 2003 season, the Panthers were devastated by injuries a year later and went 7-9.

"People on the outside have high expectations," Delhomme said, "but they aren't even close to the expectations we have as players."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-09-07-06 0958MDT

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