Best blocker among Panthers wide receivers? Coaches say it's Brandon LaFell

jjones@charlotteobserver.comOctober 16, 2013 

Just before Brandon LaFell coolly breezed into the end zone for a 79-yard score in last Sunday’s victory at Minnesota, Ted Ginn Jr. delivered a de-cleating block to Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes that had Ginn’s phone light up with about 50 texts after the game.

With the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter, Cam Newton found DeAngelo Williams underneath and Steve Smith sent a crushing blow to would-be tackler Chad Greenway that gave Williams room to get the first down.

Those kinds of blocks get replayed on highlight reels, not the ones that look like little more than a receiver getting tangled up with a defensive back.

But those are the ones LaFell specializes in, and the kind that have Ron Rivera calling him the best blocking receiver on the Carolina Panthers.

“I get so teed off when I don’t get the ball that I want to hit somebody,” LaFell said. “Whatever play it is, I got to go block so I have to go take my frustrations out on whoever’s in front of me.”

Receivers’ blocks don’t make the stats sheet and, short of ones like Ginn’s and Smith’s on Sunday, they are rarely even talked about.

LaFell, however, takes pride in his blocking. The team’s No. 2 wide receiver learned in his college days at Louisiana State that if he wanted to get on the field as a rookie playing for a big-time national program, he needed to do more than just catch passes.

“He is our best blocking wide receiver, and a lot of his blocks are made downfield,” Rivera said. “When you see him block downfield, you know he’s rolling.”

LaFell’s best block of the season, according to him, came two weeks ago at Arizona. On a quick pass to Greg Olsen, LaFell blocked cornerback Jerraud Powers and then got upfield to block free safety Tyrann Mathieu as Olsen gained 25 yards on the opening drive of the game.

“He does a lot of stuff for us at that position ... especially downfield,” Olsen said. “I think the biggest thing with blocking is effort, especially for the receivers. He’s a big, strong guy, but a lot of it is effort.”

Against Minnesota, LaFell got downfield on a first-quarter run and blocked the free safety, enabling Williams to turn a modest, left-end run into a 22-yard gain that was his longest of the day.

It starts with knowing the play call and where Williams, fullback Mike Tolbert or Newton plan to run. Then, LaFell has to hold his point and be stronger than the defender trying to outlast his block.

The downfield blocks come when the safety isn’t expecting it, LaFell said.

“Nine times out of 10 the safeties, they’re so keyed on the back and what’s going on in the backfield, they’re reading their key which is the (offensive) tackle,” LaFell said. “When they see their key block, they take their mind off you and they’re in attack mode.

“So when they take their eyes off me, it’s just like when I catch the ball and I’m not looking at them, they try to go get me off my feet and I’m trying to do the same thing.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula called LaFell a real “football player” for not only his athletic prowess and receiving ability but also his knowledge of the game. Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl said that as a No. 2 receiver, LaFell is asked to do some of the dirty work while pass-catchers Smith and Olsen get the targets.

“Just being around as a player and now as a coach for three years, I have so much respect for what he does,” Proehl said. “He’s in there blocking in run personnel, and he enjoys doing it. We ask him to do a lot of things that some of the other guys can’t do. I try to just tell him that it doesn’t go unnoticed, especially by me.”

LaFell has 15 catches for 220 yards and a team-leading three receiving touchdowns. Those numbers have him on pace for the best season of his four-year career.

But LaFell is still missing a big block, the kind Smith and Ginn had last week.

He had one two years ago against Washington. On the third play of the game, Newton scrambled out of the pocket from the Carolina 21 as LaFell began to come back from his go route down the sideline.

Redskins safety LaRon Landry doubled back to Newton and was within 3 yards of the quarterback when LaFell lowered his shoulder into Landry’s left side. Newton gained 25 yards on the play.

LaFell and Landry were college teammates at LSU, and LaFell remembered the way Landry used to hit him in practice. LaFell said Landry hasn’t forgotten the hit.

“I had my head on a swivel for the rest of the game because I knew what kind of guy he is,” LaFell said. “He mentions it to me every offseason when we work out. And I’m not looking forward to playing him any time soon.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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