Panthers excited about emergence of WR LaFell
Coach Ron Rivera believes Brandon LaFell's emergence as a reliable No. 2 receiver is the key to Carolina's success this season.
Rivera said the third-year receiver is finally ''getting it'' when it comes to the offensive scheme, which translates to fewer double teams for Steve Smith and bigger holes for the running backs.
LaFell's stat line Sunday against the New Orleans Saints - six catches for 90 yards - might not turn a lot of heads, but the Panthers know just how significant LaFell was in their 35-27 win, as well as his potential impact on the offense this season. His performance against the Saints helped the Panthers (1-1) pile up 463 yards.
Carolina looks to keep that momentum going Thursday night against the New York Giants.
''Ever since Moose (Muhsin Muhammad) retired and also with Ricky Proehl retiring, we've been looking for a guy to step in and step up,'' Smith said. ''I think Brandon has done that.''
Said Rivera: ''He's established himself as a very good complement to Steve Smith.''
Rivera said LaFell has improved in all phases of the game, including his downfield blocking, recognizing different defensive schemes and route running.
''I'll tell you that Brandon is really developing into a fine receiver,'' Rivera said. ''He is really a solid football player. He showed what he's capable of and those types of plays that he makes, the consistency by which he is making them is really helping us.''
It's amazing what a difference a year can make.
Entering last season Rivera wasn't thrilled with how LaFell and David Gettis were picking up coordinator Rob Chudzinski's scheme. That prompted the Panthers to sign free agent receiver Legedu Naanee, whom Rivera coached in San Diego.
Rivera said the move was perceived as him lighting a fire under the younger receivers but in reality he made the decision ''because we weren't getting what we needed.''
As the season progressed, LaFell became more comfortable in the offense.
And when Naanee injured his foot in Week 11, LaFell stepped into a starting role and flourished. He finished with 15 receptions for 258 yards and one touchdown in six starts. His most productive game came against Tampa Bay when he finished with three catches for 103 yards.
LaFell, a third-round pick in 2010, played well enough that the Panthers handed him the starting role in the spring and didn't bother to re-sign Naanee, a free agent.
''I wouldn't think of bringing someone else in now because of what Brandon's done,'' Rivera said. ''He's giving us every indication that he gets it, he understands it and he's ready to become that guy. He has to continue to push himself and keep that carrot in front of him.''
On Sunday, LaFell saw his share of one-on-one matchups against the Saints and made the most of them.
''Smitty is pulling double teams and I'm getting one-on-ones up there I've got the biggest smile on my face in the stadium,'' LaFell said. ''That's going to happen a lot this year and I always tell Smitty, `Man, I go as you go.' Sooner or later it's going to happen. Sooner or later they're going to start double-teaming me and leave Smitty wide open then he can make those 70 yard plays.''
That happened on Sunday.
On a bizarre play in the second half, Saints defensive backs botched an assignment when they provided extra help on LaFell, leaving Smith wide open down the right sidelines. With nobody within 20 yards of Smith, Newton made the easiest completion of his career and Smith raced for a 66-yard gain to set up a Carolina touchdown.
Newton said he was shocked Smith was so open.
''Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person,'' Newton said.
LaFell credits his improvement to spending additional time around Smith, a 12-year veteran and the elder statesman on the Carolina roster, this past offseason.
''I stayed on Smitty's wing, learning as much as I can, running and watching Smitty, working out with Smitty, doing as much as I can to be the help that we need in this offense,'' LaFell said.
With Newton running the zone read option, a solid backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, a game-breaking receiver in Smith and an underrated tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers believe LaFell could be the extra weapon that pushes the offense over the top.
As offensive tackle Jordan Gross said, you simply can't double team everyone.
''You sort of have to pick your poison with the guys we have,'' Gross said.
NOTES: Rivera said starting right tackle Byron Bell sprained his right ankle and linebacker Thomas Davis tweaked his right hamstring again Sunday. Both received medical treatment Monday at the stadium. Their status for the Giants game was unknown.
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