ATLANTA -- To understand how much Steve Smith has grown as an elite wide receiver, all you have to do is look at the Carolina Panthers' 27-20 win over Atlanta on Sunday. Although Smith caught only one pass for 10 yards, he altered the game with his mere presence. With the Falcons focused on his every move, he created opportunities for other receivers. He drove Atlanta Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall batty in the third quarter. And he did all this without one single moment worthy of a "SportsCenter" highlight, which is the most telling evidence of how effective this guy can be simply when he lines up.
It's appropriate to discuss Smith's impact because this has quickly become the year of the receiver. Randy Moss has exploded out of the gates in New England. Chad Johnson is doing his thing in Cincinnati. Terrell Owens is digging life in Dallas with his new coach, Wade Phillips, and there are a handful of other less-heralded players making names for themselves early (hello, Kevin Curtis).
But when it comes down to it, none of these wideouts can touch Smith when he's on his game.
What makes Smith so impressive these days is his maturity. He has gone from being a gifted return man intent on becoming a stud receiver to being a stud receiver who understands what it takes to stay on top of his game. As he says, "Every city I go into, I hear people saying, 'Steve Smith sucks' or I hear defensive backs saying they can hold me down. I hear it everywhere I go, but I don't need that to inspire me. What do I need to prove? All people have to know is that if they can't tackle me, I'm going 80 yards for a touchdown. I've proven I can do that."
Smith didn't need to go 80 yards for a score against Atlanta. One third-quarter drive was all the damage the Panthers actually needed from him. It started with Hall's drawing a pass interference call against Smith that produced a 37-yard gain for Carolina. On the next play, Hall apparently was so irked by Smith that he violently jammed him at the line of scrimmage on a run play, leading officials to flag Hall for a personal foul.
If that weren't enough, Hall drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty three plays later when he couldn't stop jawing at Smith after Falcons defensive end John Abraham had sacked Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme on third down. That one was the killer.
By the time Delhomme hit tight end Jeff King for a 5-yard TD pass later in that possession, Hall had been responsible for 67 yards of that six-play, 80-yard scoring drive. These are the kinds of advantages that Smith has learned to create in his seven seasons in the NFL.
"It's a physical game and it's a mental game," Smith said. "And if you're not mentally prepared, it will show. That's what we saw today."
The important thing to note is that Smith is quite aware of how much he has grown the past few years. He used to be known for his combustible temper, and he readily admits that four or five years ago he would've drawn a few penalty flags of his own during his matchup with Hall.
What's different now is that Smith has tasted enough success to know how to choose his battles wisely. Whereas Hall seemed to take the entire affair personally -- "He was saying immature things about how he'd been to as many Pro Bowls as me," Smith said -- Smith appeared content just to take Hall out of his game one down at a time.
Frankly, it was a more impressive display of Smith's talent than anything he had done this season. And we already know he's done plenty. He burned the St. Louis Rams for 118 yards and a touchdown in a Week 1 win. He gained 153 yards and scored three times a week later. But here's all you have to know about Sunday: Hall had Smith locked up for nearly three quarters, and Smith still overwhelmed him when it mattered most.
This is something other defensive backs need to remember when they meet Carolina later this season. Even with new questions about the Panthers' quarterback situation -- David Carr finished Sunday's game after Delhomme suffered a mysterious elbow injury late in the third quarter -- Smith is going to light up opponents on a weekly basis. And unlike players such as Moss and Johnson, he won't have other capable receivers to ease the pressure on him. He'll have to do it by himself and right now, he looks more than ready.
Smith made that clear as he prepared to leave the Georgia Dome and the topic of Hall came up one last time.
"Where I come from, I had to work for everything I have, and I haven't lost that attitude," he said, referring to his rough childhood in Los Angeles. "But when you have players who get paid a lot of money because they went to big schools, you see what happens. They hit the panic button. That's what happened to [Hall] today."
You might think Smith, a third-round pick out of Utah in 2001, is simply jealous of Hall, a first-round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2004. But what if it's Smith's way of saying there will be more frustrating afternoons for other defensive backs this year? After all, Hall received the lesson Sunday that keeping Smith off the stats sheet doesn't mean he still won't get the best of you.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.