Hixon steps up big with Smith out

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A fan asked prior to Sunday's 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints if the Carolina Panthers would be in the market for a tall, go-to receiver during the offseason.

My response: They did this past offseason. His name is Domenik Hixon.

New general manager Dave Gettleman signed Hixon (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) from his former team, the New York Giants, to potentially complement Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who has been in the league 13 years.

But until Sunday, Hixon had been buried in a rotation behind Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. He had only three catches for 21 yards, known more for his play on special teams than receiving.

Then Smith suffered a sprained knee in the first quarter, and Hixon went from complementing to replacing.

And with the game on the line, he became a hero.

Hixon's 14-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Cam Newton in the left front corner of the end zone with 23 seconds left proved to be the difference on this strange day.

It was strange because the Panthers had done so little offensively -- outside of a 43-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams late in the first half -- and it came down to a seldom-used player making the biggest play of his career.

Nobody was happier for him than Smith.

"I'm really happy for Dom," Smith said. "He's been awesome to have in the room. People may question this receiving corps doesn't have much depth, but at the same time when we're asked to do our job we do it, and we do it well.

"When you give us opportunities, we'll make plays.''

Hixon was Newton's hot read. When the Saints blitzed, that's where the quarterback first looked. The pass was low and away, but Hixon cradled it all the way to the ground in such a convincing way that even the replay booth couldn't overturn it.

"Hixon is the epitome of a professional,'' tight end Greg Olsen said. "He comes out every day at practice and if they are giving Steve some breaks, he fills in. He knows what to do, he has great practice habits and he works hard.

"Obviously, he's not going to replace Steve, but to go out there and fill in and make that huge season-saving catch, you just can't be happier for the guy.''

Credit Gettleman for this one just as you can credit him for several other offseason acquisitions that have risen to the forefront at opportune times. Another one of those is Ginn, who came in as a kick-return specialist but has stepped up as a receiver to keep Hixon sidelined.

Ginn caught a 37-yard pass on a crossing route to begin the game-winning drive.

It was another example of how the Panthers may not have a group of star receivers, but as a group they more than hold their own.

And if the Panthers have to move forward for a game or two without Smith, the group is strong enough to carry the load. Hixon showed that.

"Domenik has always been that type of player that when his number is called, all he does is answer,'' Newton said. "In practice, in the games, whatever Dom is asked to do he does it.

"His presence was felt today.''