Bucs have no answer for star receiver

Muhsin Muhammad roughs up the No.1 pass D to set two team marks.

Published December 27, 2004

TAMPA - They call him the Moose, but only because of the phonetic connection to his name, Muhsin Muhammad.

A moose is slow, generally dumb and pretty easy to hunt.

The Panthers Pro Bowl receiver is none of the above.

In a display that exemplified his status among the league's elite and underscored the Bucs' woes on defense, Muhammad ravaged Tampa Bay for 115 yards on eight catches.

He made a number of clutch catches on third down and a few unbelievable catches in traffic. Oh, and he had two touchdowns.

"The guy is incredible," said Bucs Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, who had the task of sticking with Muhammad much of the game. "You saw it today. We were covering him, at least three or four times, and he still makes a catch. We saw it on film. You know it's what you're dealing with with this guy. (I don't know) if there's a better wide receiver in the league. Maybe (Terrell Owens). But the guy does it all. He does it all."

In helping lead the Panthers to a 37-20 win, the nine-year veteran hooked up routinely with quarterback Jake Delhomme and showed no fear against a defense that entered No.1 against the pass.

"He made the big plays and has been making them all year," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "Delhomme is not scared to throw the ball up to him whether he's covered or not. He's going to give him a chance (to catch it). He did that, and (Muhammad) came down with the ball. He made a spectacular catch in the end zone, made some big catches on third down. You have to tip your hat to the guy; he's having a hell of a year and we couldn't find a way to stop him."

The 31-year-old Muhammad has 1,310 yards, breaking his team record of 1,253 set in 1999, and 14 TDs, also a record.

"I had no idea how close I was to those records," the 6-2, 217-pound Muhammad said. "After you finish the season and look back, you realize that you accomplish a lot of things."

Such as a one-handed, lunging catch in the back corner of the end zone that gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead. After the Bucs tied the score, Muhammad's 6-yard catch in the second quarter gave the Panthers a 14-7 lead they would not relinquish.

"He played well tonight," Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "He made the plays that were needed to be made and we didn't. We have no excuses."

Some of the blame must fall on a Bucs defense that no longer seems able to consistently make stops, but most of the credit must go to Muhammad, who has been on a tear the past two months.

In Carolina's past eight games (it has won six), Muhammad has 56 catches for 904 yards and 10 TDs. His string of big games is doubly impressive considering that Steve Smith, Carolina's other Pro Bowl receiver, has not played since the season opener.

"I think he gives everybody trouble," Tomlin said. "You don't have 1,300 yards and 80-something catches for nothing. It's not just us. But, he's got great body control. He's big and he plays big. He's got an ability to catch the ball with his hands and play the ball at its highest point. A lot of times, guys are right there to make the play, they've got their hands on the ball and he's got his hands on the ball and his hands are so strong, we can't knock it away."

Muhammad wasn't doing it by himself. Delhomme was 19-of-24 for 214 yards with four touchdowns, and running back Nick Goings had 127 yards on 33 carries.

"Give a lot of credit to the offensive coordinator and a lot of credit to their players," Barber said. "They have kind of zoned in on us and found a way to get our number. This team (will be) a stitch in our side for a lot of years to come. We know that. We have to find a way to match them. They have taken over the dominating role, as far as playing defense the way we used to play football."

One way may be to stop Muhammad from running wild in the secondary.

"That's our charge," Tomlin said. "Ideally, that's what you have to be prepared to face every week. Every quarterback in this league has a go-to guy on his team. ... We see it week in and week out and you can't shy away from it. If you do, you need to find a new line of work."