For some reason, the St. Louis Rams blowout victory over the Houston Texans did not seem to resonate with the NFL public-at-large. So, barring the fans in Carolina stealing the spotlight by booing, the Rams should have an opportunity to demand attention by winning their second consecutive road game over the Panthers on Sunday. To this point, many are framing this matchup as the “Panther’s game to lose,” highlighting their run defense and the Rams’ stagnancy on offense as favorable to the 2-3 squad. However, in this segment, Ramblin’ Fan is going to put on our coaching hat and run through how the Rams should gameplan again the Panthers with our three keys to the game:
1. Continue to pound the football
Prepare yourself Rams Nation, with the mainstream NFL media primed to recite their handful of weekly talking points about the St. Louis Rams. First and foremost, the Panthers will get deemed the 3rd-best run defense in the league this season, based purely on the fact that they have allowed the 3rd-fewest rushing yards this season. What they won’t tell say is that they did allow 103 yards rushing (6.4 average) to C.J. Spiller, allowed 7.4 yards per carry to Andre Ellington, and a 6.2 average on 10 attempts to Adrian Peterson. Yes, they did “hold” Marshawn Lynch to 43 rushing yards… but, consequently, allowed Russell Wilson to throw for 320 yards with a 75.8% completion percentage, which just so happens to be the only 300+ yard regular season game in his career.
You will also be hearing that the St. Louis Rams are the 27th ranked rushing offense in the NFL, which, again, is based solely on their total accumulated yards this season. However, over the last two games, the Rams have averaged 121.0 yards per game, which would slot them 11th in the NFL. Moreover, the weakness of the Panthers defense appears to be the run stopping abilities of their defensive ends and outside linebackers. That should bode well for Zac Stacy, who is averaging 4.9 yards per carry (5th among RBs with 30+ carries), 3.0 yards after contact (3rd), and is breaking at least one tackle on 21% of his attempts.
2. Stay with the tight end-heavy sets
The Carolina Panthers, much like the St. Louis Rams, have struggled to maintain any consistency in their deep secondary. Ironically, their new “rock” is ex-Rams’ safety, Quintin Mikell, who has started the last three games for the Panthers. It’s no surprise then that opposing tight ends have made a name for themselves catching the football over the last couple of weeks, including the lone touchdown reception in their loss to Arizona by Jim Dray and allowing 9 catches for 97 yards and a touchdown to Kyle Rudolph last week. The Carolina’ outside linebackers have been equally as deplorable in coverage, with Jon Beason allowing a 100% catch rate and 183 yards in coverage (145 of those coming after the catch), despite playing in only three games this season prior to his trade to the New York Giants. He will be replaced by Chase Blackburn, who has played a grand total of 53 defensive snaps this season, and was ranked 51st out of 53 inside linebackers last season in coverage, while starting for the Giants. Thomas Davis was been more respectable in coverage, as has their middle linebacker, Luke Kueckly… but, then again, those coverage grades have come against the Bills’ (31st), Giants’ (28th), Vikings’ (23rd), Cardinals’ (14th), and Seahawks’ (13th) passing offenses, according to ratings by Pro Football Focus.
Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are as formidable of a tight end-receiving duo as their is in the NFL right now (38 catches, 440 yards, and 5 touchdowns), and with Cory Harkey seeing more snaps in the offense, there should have more big-bodied pass-catchers than the Panthers can handle.
3. Put pressure on Cam Newton
To put it simply, Cam Newton has not performed well under pressure this season, despite facing only one opponent whose pass rush ranked in the Top 15 this season. To put it less simply, Newton has thrown 3 of his 5 interceptions while under pressure (T-7th most) and been sacked on 24.2% of “pressured dropbacks” (3rd worse). To make matters worse, not a single player on the Carolina offensive line is ranked in the Top 15 at their position in pass blocking efficiency (PBE).
Much like the game against Houston, the St. Louis Rams will need to create turnovers in order to control the game. Luckily, for the first time this season, the Rams secondary will not be facing off against any receiver currently ranked in the Top 30 in the league. In fact, the highest “graded” receiver on the team thus far is Ted Ginn, Jr. (33rd), and only one receiver has broken the 100+ yard barrier this season in any single game (Brandon LaFell against the Vikings last week).
The good news for the defensive line is that, on average, Newton has taken 2.97 seconds from the time of the snap to the time of the throw, which is 7th-slowest in the NFL. Not so coincidentally, 15 of his 16 sacks have come when holding the football for longer than 2.5 seconds. If the St. Louis Rams can lock down those receivers, Cam Newton could be in for a long day, courtesy of Robert Quinn a.k.a. “Black Lightning” (T-1st in sacks among 4-3 DE), Chris Long a.k.a. “White Thunder” (T-5th), and Michael Brockers a.k.a “Omnious Storm-Cloud of Doom” (T-4th among NT/DT).
*not sure that anyone actually calls Michael Brockers by that nickname, but it seemed fitting