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LaFell makes wide gains

Posted Sep 16, 2012

CHARLOTTE -- During a training camp practice, wide receiver Steve Smith was open down the left sideline, waving his hand in their air, insisting quarterback Cam Newton throw his way.

But he didn’t.

Instead, Newton launched a pass down the seam to wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who had streaked past two defenders. LaFell plucked the ball out of the air for a 40-yard touchdown.

Suddenly, Smith’s frustration was eased. He nodded his head and applauded in approval as he trotted back to the huddle.

Smith will always want the ball when he’s open, of course. But like he did throughout camp, the No. 2 wide receiver is proving that he can consistently get open too.

That much was clear Sunday in the Panthers 35-27 home-opening win over New Orleans.

“Cam (Newton) found me a lot today,” LaFell said. “I got real confident early because I kept getting the ball and it just continued to roll.”

LaFell, who was targeted a team-high eight times, equaled his career-high with six receptions for 90 yards against the Saints. He also rushed for 25 yards on an end-around.

A week earlier at Tampa Bay, the third-year wideout scored the Panther’s only touchdown on a 22-yard catch.

“Brandon LaFell – his emergence as our No. 2 receiver is huge right now,” head coach Ron Rivera said.

The emergence began in the offseason when LaFell worked extensively with Smith.

“I stayed under Smitty’s wing,” LaFell said, “learned as much as I can running routes with Smitty, working out with Smitty, doing as much as I can to provide that help and be that guy we need in this offense.”

Two weeks into the regular season, that’s exactly who LaFell has become.

“Ever since Moose (Mushin Muhammad) retired, we’ve been looking for a guy to step in and step up,” Smith said. “LaFell has done that. He’s grown and he’s improving.”

LaFell’s progression gives the Panthers another playmaking receiving option and helps free up space for Smith.

Defenses regularly give Smith extra attention – and for good reason. But if LaFell exploits the secondary on the other side, that changes the dynamic.

“When Steve is out there pulling double teams and I’m getting one-on-ones out there, man I’ve got the biggest smile on my face,” LaFell said. “That’s going to happen a lot this year.

“But sooner or later they are going to start double-teaming me and leave Smitty wide open, and he’ll make big plays.”

Like Smith’s 66-yard catch and run against the Saints, where the defense seemingly forgot Smith was on the field.

And if LaFell continues to produce at this rate, Smith -- and the entire Panthers’ offense -- will continue to reap the benefits.

“We’re going to see (teams) using the double on Smith and keep everybody else singled up, daring us to beat man coverage,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “With LaFell playing the way he’s playing, it’s going to be hard for them to do that.”