FOXBORO -- Steve Smith is a strong man.
What's often highlighted of the Panthers 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver is his lack of size. Then, normally, what quickly follow are the reasons for which he's able to make up for his physical shortcomings: He's quick; he has good speed; he's as competitive as anyone in the league.
But his speed, while still good, isn't what it once was. And his quickness isn't the same as when he broke into the league as a third-round pick in the 2001 draft.
That strength, though, is still there. He has strong hands, he's strong at the line of scrimmage, and he is rarely tackled without a fight.
Bill Belichick still sees Smith's strength on film as the Patriots prepare to play the Panthers on Monday night.
"He’s still a tough guy to handle," Belichick said Thursday. "He’s very strong for his size. He’s a shorter player, but he’s stocky. He’s thick. He has good balance. He’s tough. He’s hard to bring down.
"He has strong hands; you can see him really reach out there and take the ball aggressively. He has good quickness and [his] run-after-the-catch ability is still good. He’s taken some shorter passes and broken some tackles or beaten guys in the open field. He’s a tough guy to handle."
In his thirteenth NFL season, Smith is still Carolina's most productive weapon in the passing game. Though he hasn't proven to be the same deep threat he was in the past -- his long reception this season is 23 yards -- he averages 50 yards a game receiving on about five catches per game.
Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib has more experience going up against Smith than any other New England defensive back. While playing in the NFC South with the Buccaneers, Talib got a sense not only for Smith's skill set, but also his competitive fire.
"That competitive nature, man," said Talib, who is working his way back from a hip injury suffered in Week 6. "He bring it every Sunday or Monday, whenever the game is. Steve gonna bring it, man. You competitive like that, you gonna be pretty successful."
If it's not with a stiff-arm to the facemask, Smith will use his mouth to remind an opposing player just how badly he wants to win that day's matchup.
"Steve, he do his talking on the field," Talib said. "You got a lot of guys who do they're talking to [the media], and we get out on the field and they don't say too much on the field. Steve is one of those guys. He gonna do it on the field."
(Talib himself has never been one to shy away from having an impassioned back-and-forth with his competition. "Yeah," Talib said with a smile. "I've said a couple words.")
Even if Talib plays, which is still up in the air, it's unclear if Smith would draw the best Patriots corner in coverage play after play. Though Smith is Carolina's top weapon in the passing game, it's not by much. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton spreads the ball around to multiple targets, including wideout Brandon LaFell (44.4 yards per game) and tight end Greg Olsen (48.9 yards per game).
Still, the Patriots know that Smith and the strength with which he plays require special attention.
"He’s a tough, competitive player," Belichick said. "The bigger the situation, the more he wants to be out there and step up and take the shot, so to speak. I have a lot of respect for Steve Smith and I think he’s still very effective in that role for the Panthers."