CHARLOTTE - On the heels of a historically poor season on offense, the Panthers are piling up some serious yardage totals.
The next step: Pile up some points and, hopefully, some victories.
Through Week 2, the Panthers lead the NFC and rank second in the NFL with 476 yards per game.
On the other hand, Carolina is one of just two teams in the top 10 in yardage that isn't in the top 11 in scoring, ranking 18th in points per game (22.0).
That's a big reason why the Panthers are 0-2 despite the yardage totals heading into Sunday's visit by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"The big thing is that when we get down in the red zone, we've got to put it in the end zone," said head coach Ron Rivera, whose team is tied for 24th in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. "The red zone is a very specific part of the game, and it's a part that you need time as an offense and defense to become good. It is about reps; you can never make up for those reps. We're going to continue to grow."
The Panthers came away with just two touchdowns on six red-zone chances in last Sunday's 30-23 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Still, Rivera is more encouraged than discouraged by what he's seen from the offense as a whole.
The Panthers finished last in the NFL in scoring and total offense last season. This season, they have tallied 44 points through two games after scoring just 52 through the first five games in 2010. The 958-yard mark they've reached through Week 2 wasn't attained in 2010 until the second half of their Week 4 game.
"Our offense has really picked up what we want to do schematically," Rivera said. "The protections are outstanding. Sure the quarterback has gotten hit a couple of times, but when you're throwing the ball like we are, he's going to get hit. We're running good routes, and there are guys making great plays.
"Brandon LaFell two weeks in a row has made great plays, and Steve Smith has made some great plays, plus our tight ends are involved in the offense in a big way. You're talking about four weapons, five weapons at a time. If the quarterback has time and makes a good decision, we have an opportunity to pick up some big yards."
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER: So much for the suggestion from some that Smith might be over the hill.
The 32-year-old wide receiver leads the NFL with 334 receiving yards and is tied for seventh with 14 receptions. His 23.9 yards per catch leads all receivers who have at least six catches.
"It just speaks to what kind of athlete he is," Rivera said. "Age right now isn't a factor. Now maybe in a couple of years it will be a factor, but right now he's doing exactly what we want by making plays for us."
Smith did have a crucial fumble Sunday that he blamed for turning the momentum toward the Packers.
"I know he's disappointed in the fumble – I'm disappointed in the fumble – but it happens," Rivera said. "I would love for him to keep it tucked, but he was trying to get it to the other hand so he could stiff-arm and pick up as many yards as he could. Unfortunately, something bad happened, but you can never fault a guy for playing hard."
RUNNING IN PLACE: The Panthers' total offense numbers are skewed heavily toward the pass game, which ranks second with 403.5 net yards per game. The run game ranks 29th, averaging 72.5 yards per game.
"If we weren't throwing for as many yards, I would truly be concerned about the running game," Rivera said. "It's a lack of opportunities. We're throwing the ball well – it's very effective for us right now. If we do run the ball more or a little better, we'll have an opportunity to maybe open the passing game even more. We just have to continue to work with it; it's a part of the process. As we continue to develop, I think it will all fall into place."
Running back Jonathan Stewart did catch eight passes for 100 yards against the Packers on called screen plays and dump-offs. Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Goodson have combined for 16 receptions for 147 yards out of the backfield.
"If you get the ball underneath to your backs and give them an opportunity to run, you can consider that an extension to the running game," Rivera said.
HAND FOR BELL: Rivera said that Byron Bell, an undrafted rookie from the University of New Mexico, played admirably in place of Jeff Otah at right tackle, especially with Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews often lining up across from him in the Packers' 3-4 scheme.
"I'm excited for Byron. The young man has gone through a lot, and when he got an opportunity, he took advantage of it," Rivera said. "I thought he held his own. He had his moments when he got to rough up the Pro Bowler, and I think the Pro Bowler took advantage of him a couple of times. He's a young man that's growing, that epitomizes this football team. He's going to get better and better as we go."
Bell, who nearly quit football early in his college career after a house fire killed one of his younger brothers, embraced the challenge.
"This will help me become a better player, a better offensive lineman," Bell said. "My job is to help this team win ballgames – I don't care what year I'm in – so I just need to get better, and I will. I'm going to grow from this experience."
Rivera said that Otah, who missed the game after suffering a concussion in the season opener, made progress over the weekend and would be pushed a little harder and further evaluated over the next couple of days.