CHARLOTTE – When Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Panthers this offseason following three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the veteran wide receiver quickly felt at home.
"It's been pretty seamless. Guys welcomed me from Day One," Cotchery said. "I had a nickname from Day One. DeAngelo Williams said, 'You look like somebody's uncle. I'm going to start calling you "Unc.""
Sunday night, Cotchery and the Panthers hope the visiting Steelers are the ones saying "uncle."
Cotchery, who caught 10 touchdown passes for Pittsburgh last season, is on pace through two games to surpass his reception and yardage totals from 2013, though he's yet to find the end zone. He would love to score his first touchdown as a Panthers against his former team, but not just because it's his former team.
"My motivation is the same - to try to make plays and help this team win ballgames," Cotchery said. "For me, it's Year 11 and I haven't won a Super Bowl yet. Every day I get up, that's what I want. I visualize passing around the trophy after I put my lip prints on it and celebrating with my teammates."
Cotchery said he got the handshakes and hugs with his former teammates out of the way when the Panthers visited Pittsburgh for the preseason finale, but his new coach knows that past affiliation could still play a role Sunday.
Head coach Ron Rivera has often said playing one of his former employers adds a different dynamic to the game, one he suspects that Cotchery as well as guard Fernando Velasco will feel when they take the field.
"For Jerricho and for Fernando, these guys have played for that team and played well," Rivera said. "They have a little bit of history, and that's something you always get caught up in because it's kind of like where you grew up. You want to be able to come out and play well against those guys."
There's also a practical matter related to the reunion, one the Panthers have successfully used to their advantage throughout Rivera's tenure. Cotchery has been able to offer some advice to his new teammates about his old teammates throughout the week, though he'll only go so far.
"I can help from the standpoint of any questions they might have from what they see on film, but I won't make the mistake of giving them information beforehand that doesn't add up on the field," Cotchery said. "You don't want to put them in a position where they're assuming things, but if they have questions, I can try to help things make sense for them."
Cotchery, much like Rivera, said the Steelers defense is in transition. Pittsburgh ranks 20th in total defense and 25th in scoring defense at this early juncture.
"They've gotten a lot faster as a group, but the communication and that chemistry has to grow," Cotchery said. "They need time to develop as a group, but they are flying around and playing hard."
And the unit, which features former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, plays a physical style. It's something Cotchery experienced in Pittsburgh's practices and something he'll experience with no holds barred Sunday, though this time it's a double-edged sword.
"They're familiar with me, and I'm familiar with them. It will be a lot like practice," Cotchery said. "It's a physical group that takes pride in being physical. Historically, that's how it's been, and people try to hold up that tradition.
"We're a pretty physical group here as well, so it's going to be a good matchup."