LaFell hitting his stride

CHARLOTTE - As a rookie, Brandon LaFell ranked third on the Panthers in receptions.

Through the first two games of his second season, LaFell again ranks third.

Somehow, though, it feels different – from LaFell's perspective and the Panthers' perspective.

"I don't think we're throwing the ball too much," said LaFell, who already has one-quarter of the receiving yards through two games that he had all of last season. "This year they've put me in more positions to make plays.

"Also, when we're moving the ball the way we're moving it, the offense fits everybody better. Last year we struggled a lot, but we're flowing right now."

LaFell has eight catches for 119 yards so far, including a 3-yard touchdown on the first drive of Sunday's game against Green Bay and a 32-yarder in traffic that kept a possible game-tying drive alive.

Both clutch catches showed how quickly LaFell has built two-way trust with rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who ranks second in the NFL with 854 passing yards.

"The first catch was just Cam throwing a good ball. He made the play because I was supposed to take more of an angle toward the sideline, but I was just went straight up because I was so open," LaFell said. "The last one, it was something we had seen all day. Their cornerback was trying to play both me and L.A. (Legedu Naanee) in the deep third, so Cam just said, 'You just run down the field 15, 20 yards, spot up, and I'm going to throw you a jump ball.' I just went up and made a play."

First-year head coach Ron Rivera said he could see this coming from LaFell before he even so much as saw him in a Panthers practice. Rivera observed the same potential in receiver David Gettis, who put up nearly identical numbers to LaFell as a rookie in 2010 but suffered a season-ending knee injury at training camp.

"When you put the tape on and saw two young guys here, you went, 'Wow,' " Rivera said. "We really thought there were some young guys that could grow into this offense, and that's what we're seeing right now."

It hasn't come easy for LaFell, who struggled to grasp the new offense and suffered a hamstring injury in training camp. He came back from the injury better than ever – physically and mentally.

"That first week I was really struggling. I really wasn't going out there and playing fast because I was thinking so much about doing this and that," LaFell said. "But when I injured my hamstring, I had time while I was rehabbing to look at the playbook more and watch and talk to the coaches and talk to the quarterbacks and ask what they wanted.

"Stuff is starting to slow down now. I'm starting to understand defenses and reading them on the run instead of getting a pre-snap read and being stuck with what I read before the play started."

LaFell had little difficulty putting himself in position to make plays at Louisiana State, where he ranks third in school history with 175 receptions for 2,517 yards and 25 touchdowns. He could, however, had even gaudier numbers if his hands hadn't let him down at times, a concern he's continued to battle on the pro level.

"When I was in college, I had a big problem with letting balls get into my body, and I would drop them," LaFell said. "Smitty (Steve Smith) always tells me, 'Hands, hands, hands. Go out there and trust your hands, make plays with your hands.' When you make plays with your hands, it's easy."

Safety Jordan Pugh, also a second-year player, said he has noticed a difference of late.

"Everything that comes around, he's catching," Pugh said. "You can see the growth, the difference between year one and year two. Everybody has the ability, but when you start trusting yourself when it comes to knowing the system, you get comfortable. He's starting to come into his own."

While Pugh could get his first start of the season Sunday versus Jacksonville if Charles Godfrey can't bounce back quickly enough from concussion-like symptoms, LaFell is likely to be the third receiver to see the field, after Smith and Naanee.

As long as his teammates continue to open up opportunities for him, that's just fine by him.

"It's kind of easy when you've got those two tight ends making plays and Smitty is out there making plays, plus you've got a guy back there at quarterback who can make plays for himself as well as make plays for us," LaFell said. "When they focus on Smitty and they focus on Greg (Olsen) and (Jeremy) Shockey, I'm going to get one-on-one coverage and I'm going to make a play."

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