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Rice sees Giants receiver Smith as top-class

New York Giants' Steve Smith (12) stiff-arms Dallas

New York Giants' Steve Smith (12) stiff-arms Dallas Cowboys' Gerald Sensabaugh (43) after a big gain in the third quarter. The Giants defeated the Cowboys, 31-24. (December 6, 2009) Credit: John Dunn

When he was training during the offseason, Steve Smith said he wanted to have one of the best seasons ever by a Giants receiver. It was an off-the-cuff remark, just a boast to set a goal. And now that it's actually happened?

"I didn't ever really realize that it can come true," Smith said this past week.

He may have had his doubts, but one of his biggest fans always knew he would be able to have the kind of season he is enjoying. And that should carry some weight, because that fan is none other than the greatest receiver in NFL history.

"I'm not surprised at all," Jerry Rice told Newsday when asked about Smith's 85 receptions - a franchise single-season record - and 1,053 yards. "There's no way you're going to be able to cover Steve inside. He's using double moves, he's doing everything to get open. And also, you look at Eli [Manning] and you can tell that he has confidence in him that he's going to make the plays to win football games."

Rice's admiration is nothing new. Smith first caught his attention while playing at Southern Cal. Long before Smith became a second-round pick of the Giants in the 2007 draft, long before he emerged as one of the top receivers in the league, Rice saw his potential.

"I noticed the guy, and he could make the difficult catches underneath and move the chains," Rice said. "That was the most important thing about Steve Smith. But what I'm seeing now is he's more of a go-to guy."

Smith and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald are tied for first in the NFC and fourth in the NFL with 85 catches. Smith's 34 third-down catches lead the NFL, four more than Davone Bess of Miami. And he's caught five touchdown passes.

To whom does Rice compare Smith?

"I think he's on his own level, man," Rice said. "And he's only going to get smarter. He's going to get smarter and learn to set the opponent up more. He's pretty much going to have his way on the football field."

Smith has a knack for getting wide open. With such an emerging profile and impressive statistics, why aren't teams trying to cover him? There are times when it doesn't seem as if they are. Rice chuckled at that.

"It's the double moves," he said. "When you've got safeties and linebackers trying to cover a receiver of his status, that's not going to happen. When he breaks them down completely, it's going to show. He's going to be so wide open for the catch.

"If you're going to try to cover him one-on-one inside, or even outside, that's not going to happen," Rice added. "He's too talented."

Manning notices Smith's route-running, too.

"He has really learned how to set up the defenders," Manning said. "How to get great releases and knowing what he can and can't do with his routes. You can't be a mechanic; you can't be a robot and run straight lines like they are in the playbook. It's about doing extra moves, getting extra releases and having a sense of where the defenders are and going to the spot where they aren't."

Smith should continue to pile up big numbers until he gets regular double coverage. And even though Rice isn't surprised and Smith predicted it (even if he was unsure that it would happen), there were many who believed that the receiving corps would be a weakness for the Giants this season.

"Isn't it ironic?" Smith noted. "All the naysayers and all the things we were hearing all [offseason] long. It's not that people didn't believe, it's just they didn't know about us."

Rice knew.

"When he first came in with Plaxico Burress being there, it took him a little while to get his feet under him," Rice said. "I knew that when Plaxico got into that situation [after shooting himself], Steve was going to step in and he was going to fill that void and be that go-to guy. His route-running is excellent, and the way he uses his hands to catch the football, he has confidence in his hands that he can get the job done."

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