Where is Mr. Smith? The Panthers need to solve the mystery

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a fairly forgettable performance by his quarterbacks here on Sunday afternoon, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith was rendered a forgotten man.

That's not exactly an easy accomplishment, because while the 5-foot-9 Smith is vertically challenged enough to get lost in a lot of crowds, the three-time Pro Bowl performer usually stands head and shoulders above many of the NFL's most explosive wide receivers.

But in the Panthers' inglorious 31-7 drubbing by the Indianapolis Colts, the fifth straight home loss for Carolina dating back to last season, Smith totaled just two receptions for a measly 18 yards.

More damning than those anemic numbers, though, are these: For the entire game, Carolina quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde and David Carr threw the ball to Smith only seven times, including just three attempts after the first quarter and only one in the second half.

The frequently combustible Smith, whose legendary volatility early in his career often got him into trouble on and off the field, did not speak to the media after the game. According to reporters who cover the Panthers on a regular basis, that has become the norm of late. But the seven-year veteran did have a long conversation with Carr in a corner of the locker room.

And the content of that dialogue? Carr, who replaced Testaverde in the second half after the 43-year-old starter's Achilles tendon tightened on him, wasn't sharing any details.

"[But] we're too old to keep secrets from each other," said Carr, who approached Smith about the struggles of the Carolina offense after the defeat, and likely got an earful from the Panthers' most feared playmaker.

It's no secret that since starting quarterback Jake Delhomme suffered a season-ending elbow injury that required so-called Tommy John surgery, the Carolina offense has struggled to get the ball into Smith's hands.

Smith had 16 receptions for 281 yards and three touchdowns in the three games in which Delhomme started. In the four games since, he has 24 catches for 233 yards and two scores. But even though Smith has averaged more catches per game since Delhomme went down for the season, the numbers are misleading, since 10 of the receptions and 136 of the yards came in one outing, an Oct. 14 victory at Arizona.

In the three other games since Delhomme was sidelined, Smith has 32, 47 and 18 yards. His average per catch in the past four games is just 9.7 yards, down from the 17.6 yards he was averaging with Delhomme in the lineup.

If such shortcomings continue, the Panthers -- who still lead the NFC South with a 4-3 record -- will have problems even in a division that has become diluted.

Smith, 28, is the biggest home run threat on a Carolina offense comprised principally of singles and doubles hitters. The only other wide receiver on the team with more than a dozen catches is Keary Colbert, with 20, and he is more an intermediate-range pass catcher who suffers from inconsistent hands.

"Hey, Smith is the guy where, every play, you say to yourself, 'OK, where is he? Where have they lined him up at?' I'm guessing our defensive coaches, when they started to game plan for this week, he's the man they started with. It's probably that way with any team that plays [the Panthers]," Indianapolis cornerback Marlin Jackson said.

While the Indianapolis coverage scheme was a good one, it didn't hurt the Colts' defense that Smith went largely ignored by his own quarterbacks.

Carr in particular spent most of his two-quarter stint completing checkdowns and dump-off passes to tight ends and running backs. Of the 28 completions by the Carolina quarterbacks, only seven were to wide receivers, none for more than 15 yards. Tight end Jeff King had 10 receptions but averaged only 8.2 yards per catch, with a long of 12 yards.

Not surprisingly, Carolina head coach John Fox credited the Indianapolis defense for all but erasing his best offensive player.

"They play a lot of Cover 2," Fox said. "And once we lost the lead by as much as we did, they were able to sit in that, and then we had to throw into it and that's not a pretty sight against anybody."

In truth, the Colts don't play nearly as much of the Tampa 2 coverage scheme as opponents insist, and that has been the case over the past couple seasons. Under coordinator Ron Meeks, and with the blessing of Tampa 2 architect and head coach Tony Dungy, the Colts align a lot in a Cover 3 look. But they did revert back to their Tampa 2 persona for Sunday, in large part because of Smith's presence.

Said Dungy: "You feel like you have to contain him, keep him in front of you, and limit the number of big plays that he gets."

That became a far less daunting task because the Panthers essentially limited the number of opportunities that Smith had to make plays.

His longest catch of the day, for 12 yards, actually came when he wasn't even lined up as a wide receiver. On a third-and-5 play on Carolina's opening possession, the Panthers came out in an "empty" formation, then shifted Smith into the backfield, as a tailback. He took a swing pass from Testaverde in the left flat and turned it upfield for a first down.

Smith's only other catch came on the first snap of the Panthers' second series, for 6 yards, and that was with 40 seconds left in the first quarter. After that, Smith never touched the ball again, and there were only two occasions on which the Carolina quarterbacks attempted to get him the ball more than 20 yards up the field.

"With them dropping off two or three guys, and playing deep, you just have to take the short, 10-yard throws sometimes," Carr said.

But not even many of those went in the direction of Smith on Sunday, and that will have to be addressed if the Carolina passing game is going to be productive the rest of the season.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.