Double Coverage: Rams at Panthers
By David Newton and Nick Wagoner
Quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Cam Newton led their teams to victory last week.
The Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams put on an offensive showcase in a 2003 NFC divisional playoff game at the Edwards Jones Dome. The Rams overcame an 11-point deficit in the final 2:39 of regulation and the Panthers ended the 29-23 double-overtime thriller with a 69-yard touchdown catch by Steve Smith.
They were two teams loaded with offensive weapons, from St. Louis' Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce to Carolina's Smith and Stephen Davis. They had identities.
Fast-forward 10 years to Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium, where both the Panthers (2-3) and Rams (3-3) are searching for an identity. ESPN.com Panthers team reporter David Newton and Rams team reporter Nick Wagoner are here to break down the 2013 version of this matchup:
David Newton: Nick, it seems both teams have been waiting for their quarterbacks to become consistent winners since they were drafted No. 1, St. Louis' Sam Bradford in 2010 and Carolina's Cam Newton in 2011. Why has it taken so long for Bradford to get there, if he is?
Nick Wagoner: Well, I don't think he is there yet. This is the first year Bradford has had any sort of continuity in terms of scheme, and in the past he's dealt with a mediocre receiver corps and offensive lines that aren't much better. He's not devoid of blame, though. Bradford has had issues in the past with going through progressions and locking onto receivers, among other fundamental problems. He's been up and down this year, but has done a really good job of protecting the ball. Now that the Rams seem to have some semblance of a competent running game, he's been better in the past couple of weeks.
Ultimately, the jury is still out on whether he's the long-term answer, but if he can continue to take care of the ball and toss touchdown passes in leading the Rams to more wins, that picture suddenly gains clarity.
I'm going to ask you to try to analyze Newton. From afar, it seems he struggles with consistency. Is that the case and how do you think he's adjusted to life after Rob Chudzinski?
Newton: Cam Newton's consistency remains a question. Yes, his career-high 143.4 passer rating against Minnesota in Game 5 was impressive, but do you know the last time he topped 100.0 in consecutive weeks during the first six games? Never. Sunday was only the second time this season he completed more than 60 percent of his passes and only the eighth in the past 21 games. His passer rating looks like a yo-yo -- 97.3 to 79.8 to 104.4 to 47.8 to 143.4.
As for life without Chudzinski, it has been a learning process. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula is attempting to go with a more traditional ground game out of the I-formation, but each week he's figuring out better ways to utilize his quarterback's natural abilities. In the long run, he'll make Newton a better quarterback who will have a much longer career relying on his arm more than his legs.
While we're on offense, Carolina's running game ranks seventh in the NFL and the Rams rank 30th against the run. Is this misleading or an area you expect the Panthers to exploit?
Wagoner: Without question, it's the latter. Carolina would be silly not to attack heavily in the run game. The Rams' problems really seem to come in the back seven. Linebacker Alec Ogletree has trouble getting off blocks and is inconsistent tackling, and the Rams aren't getting reliable run support at safety. Darian Stewart has filled in for rookie T.J. McDonald and has really struggled. On top of that, the Rams continue to have issues with being consistently assignment-sound with everyone fitting the proper gaps on run plays.
The Rams' offense, on the other hand, has started to find success in recent weeks with rookie Zac Stacy as the lead back. Carolina has been quite good statistically against the run. Not that the Panthers were bad against the run last year, but what allowed them to go from middle of the pack to upper tier in that area, and do you think that level of success will be sustained over the course of the year?
Newton: First, yes, the Panthers can sustain it. No question the front seven is one of the best in the league. The addition of first-round pick Star Lotulelei and second-round pick Kawann Short at tackle has been key, particularly Lotulelei. He has been as disruptive in the middle as any tackle the Panthers have had since Kris Jenkins was a four-time Pro Bowl selection here. End Greg Hardy has stepped up his game as well, even though statistics might not show it.
Then there is the real strength of this group, the linebackers. Trading Jon Beason to the Giants has been a positive. With Beason out and Chase Blackburn in, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has had more flexibility with his schemes. Thomas Davis is playing more on the weak side, where Beason was, and has three sacks over the past three games. He has never had more than 3.5 in a season. Blackburn can play either spot as well. And while his tackles are down because Davis and Blackburn have been making so many plays, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly continues to perform at the level that earned him the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year a season ago.
This unit is fundamentally strong. It doesn't need a lot of elaborate blitzes to stop the run or pressure the quarterback. Just ask Adrian Peterson how good the Panthers are. He had a season-low 62 rushing yards, and 31 of those came on one carry.
An area that rarely gets discussed in Double Coverage is special teams. Panthers kicker Graham Gano, who has been flawless on field goals, has had only one kickoff not reach the end zone all season. How key have special teams been for the Rams?
Wagoner: The Rams' special teams have been alternately excellent and awful. They have perhaps one of the best coverage units in the league, with punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein having been nearly flawless in their respective disciplines and the young cover guys getting down the field and making tackles consistently. But the Rams have racked up 18 special-teams penalties, with the bulk of those coming on punt returns. That has been maddening for them because many of those infractions have wiped out long returns from rookie Tavon Austin. Progress was made Sunday in that regard, and the Rams even got a touchdown on kick coverage against Houston. The talent is in place in all areas of the special teams. They just need to keep eliminating mistakes and be more consistent.
Getting back to Carolina's defense, I see that the Panthers haven't been too shabby against the pass this year, either. Does that group have any real weaknesses or areas that opponents have been able to exploit? If so, what are they?
Newton: The secondary was suspect before the season and even into the first two games. Since injuries shook things up in Week 2, the Panthers have found the right combination and been solid. They give up passes underneath, as their 68.4 completion percentage -- second worst in the NFL -- attests. Minnesota took advantage last week when Matt Cassel completed 32 passes. But Carolina tackled well and held most of those to short gains.
If I had to pick one weakness, though, I would say left cornerback Josh Thomas. He's solid against the run but soft at times against the pass. If the Rams are to put many points on the board they'll definitely have to do it through the air.
Nick Wagoner: Two similar teams with Jekyll and Hyde tendencies play this one down to the wire, but the Panthers' defense is ultimately enough to keep the Rams from putting together a late drive to pull out a victory.
Panthers 20, Rams 17
David Newton: The last time the Panthers came off a dominating performance this season they laid an egg at Arizona, but they had a bye week in between. It's hard to see that happening again at home with the league's eighth-best running game going against the No. 31 defense against the run.
Panthers 27, Rams 13
Rams at Panthers: Stat of the Week: 23
Graham Gano has sent 23 of 24 kickoffs into the end zone with 22 resulting in touchbacks. The 91.7 touchback percentage ranks No. 1 in the NFL and is a big reason Carolina is willing to defer when winning the coin toss.