Challenges mount for overmatched Rams
BY JEFF GORDON
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
The Rams coaching staff has a big, big job to do this week.
Injuries forced this slumping team -– now 4-5 after four consecutive losses -- to make key lineup changes. So this is not a great time to face the Carolina Panthers, a team that presents a number of massive match-up problems.
Here are the pressing matters for Scott Linehan and his staff:
* Alex Barron gets to stay at right tackle, where he has played all season. The bad news: He is matched up against sackmaster Julius Peppers this week.
On the road, in a noisy stadium. Should we set an over-under number on how many false-start penalties he earns Sunday?
“The competitor in him and us is going to correct it,” Linehan said. “Until we do that, we’re not going to have success. Everybody on this line wants to improve and get over the hump.”
As for Peppers, Linehan said: “If you were to pick three guys in the NFL that you have to game plan around as an offensive coach calling plays against a defense, he is right up there -– maybe No. 1. He’s second to none with his ability to impact the game from his position.
“Now he is equally as good against the run and he runs down things from the back side that a young player may not do earlier in his career. He can wreck the game in a number of ways.”
* Adam Goldberg will settle into the left tackle spot, replacing injured All-Pro tackle Orlando Pace. Goldberg’s natural position is right guard, but the Rams coaches elected to keep their linemen in the same spots they finished the Seattle game.
The coaches thought about moving Barron to left tackle and playing Goldberg at right tackle.
“There is a certain level of comfort there that we’re really not changing anybody’s position,” Linehan said. “It would be really changing two guys and having to overcome all those issues.”
The Panthers can generate a significant pass rush with just their impressive front four -– but they mix in some disruptive blitzes as well. The jerry-rigged offensive line faces a severe test.
“They have one of the best, if not the best, front fours,” Linehan said. “They are similar to Seattle. Seattle blitzed a number of times last week. You can see that from them. They have a very similar defensive scheme. They get to the quarterback with a four-man rush without any problem, so they need to blitz if they want to pressure a guy.”
After losing Pace, can the Rams maintain their usual offensive scope?
“You can’t just go conservative,” Linehan said. “We still have to move the ball and score and be aggressive and do all those things. You can’t replace him. You do have to be aware that people are going to put somebody on a guy that hasn’t been playing the position that much and try to gain an advantage.”
* Cornerback Travis Fisher went onto the injured reserve list, since doctors determined he would need at least six weeks to recover from his broken arm -– and there are only seven games left to play.
Rookie Tye Hill moves into the starting slot, and safety Corey Chavous will gain some nickel back coverage responsibilities, Ron Bartell moves up the depth chart and Jerametrius Butler will actually get on the field Sunday.
Linehan wouldn’t be shocked to see the Panthers devise ways to force Hill to cover All-Pro receiver Steve Smith.
“That 89 is one of a kind,” Linehan said. “He is the biggest 5-foot-9 guy I’ve ever seen. He plays so big. They use him a lot of ways, throw him the ball, hand him the ball, put him in the slot, put him in motion, run screens.
“With the elite players, hopefully the scheme gives them a chance. There are times when Tye is going to have to go out and cover him. There are going to be some plays where he’s going to be one-on-one. You don’t want a whole bunch of them in a row . . . but you have to do the best job you can.”
* After failing to stop Maurice Morris in Seattle, the Rams will face two elite runners Sunday -– DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams.
“I’m sure they will attack us with the run,” Linehan said.
* The Rams added return specialist Willie Ponder to run back kickoffs, which ought to help. But the team’s punt and kickoff coverage could be compromised by injuries.
All in all, this will be an interesting week for the Rams’ rookie head coach. He and his assistant coaches are trying to steer this team out of its midseason funk.
Unfortunately, the Rams are facing an opponent that would be problematic even in the best of times.
This staff still has to prove itself to the team, the league and the general public. Sunday’s game at Carolina could be their opportunity to do just that.