CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Steve Smith loves a challenge, and on Sunday he faces a big one: a match up against Oakland's shutdown cornerback, Nnamdi Asomugha.
In the past, that would have brought concern to the Carolina Panthers, who had no reliable second receiving option.
This season, they finally have a Plan B.
``Steve was a one-man show. It's plain and simple,'' quarterback Jake Delhomme said. ``In '05 he carried us, but we had that security blanket in Ricky Proehl. ... You don't have him in '06 and '07 and it was very different.''
Now, with Muhsin Muhammad back after a three-year stint in Chicago, an emerging Dwayne Jarrett and D.J. Hackett perhaps returning from a knee injury, the Panthers receiving corps is more than just Smith and a bunch of invisible guys.
atches, and I think that helps with confidence.''
Muhammad still leads the Panthers with 37 catches, four fewer than Smith, who was suspended for the first two games after punching teammate Ken Lucas in training camp.
Jarrett, after a forgettable rookie season, has only six catches for 78 yards, but has made some key fourth-quarter grabs in wins over San Diego and Arizona. Hackett, signed in the offseason, has 10 catches for 131 yards. Delhomme has also used tight ends Dante Rosario and Jeff King. Rosario caught the game-winning TD as time expired against the Chargers.
So it gives the Panthers some optimism as Smith faces a tall task against Asomugha, the struggling Raiders' franchise cornerback making $9.7 million this season. Many teams have completely ignored the side of the field Asomugha is on.
``I think it's a mental thing,'' Smith said. ``A lot of guys just don't want to deal with it. The way he plays, I kind of see why.''
Whether Asomugha follows Smith around the field is uncertain, but the matchup should prove intriguing, with Smith on a hot streak and fueling Carolina's 6-2 start. Smith has gone over 100 yards receiving in the past three games, with three touchdowns.
on is the side that I'm going to try to run efficient and catch the ball efficient.''
One subplot for Sunday was erased this week when Oakland released cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who had a meltdown while covering Smith last season when he was with Atlanta, getting called for 67 yards worth of penalties on one drive.
But Hall's absence could present opportunities for the rest of the receiving unit, which is a clear upgrade over last year's crew that included the ineffective Keary Colbert and Drew Carter.
``Smitty is of course is a big part of the offense. He's one of our most dangerous weapons,'' Muhammad said. ``We like to run the ball a lot, too. We're not going to throw the ball 50 times a game. But I think going into every game, you never know what's going to dictate that mismatch or that matchup coaches want to take advantage of.''
Delhomme has completed nearly 61 percent of his passes and 11 players have caught passes. So if Smith is hounded all day by Asomugha on Sunday, the Panthers may not be paralyzed like they've been in the past.
``You do look for Steve, there's no doubt,'' Delhomme said. ``I'm not hesitant to throw to these other guys on third downs and these tough situations.''

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