By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Monday, Sep. 10 2007

With a 10-7 lead and the crowd roaring after an 84-yard kickoff return by Dante
Hall, victory was there for the taking early in the third quarter. With a
touchdown, the Rams would have a double-digit lead over Carolina and momentum.

"We were in very good position, and we let it get away from us," coach Scott
Linehan said.

Yes they did, one disappointing sequence after another.

Even though Hall's return carried to the Carolina 17, the Rams settled for a
field goal, unable to get it done in the red zone.

Then came a rarity: a Steven Jackson fumble.

Then came a lightning bolt: a 68-yard touchdown strike from Jake Delhomme to
Steve Smith for Carolina.

Then came a supreme rarity: a second Steven Jackson fumble.

Followed by the inevitable: Carolina running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo
Williams pounding away at the undersized St. Louis defense.

Slowly and inexorably, a 13-7 lead melted away into a disheartening, 27-13
season-opening loss for the Rams on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.

In the locker room afterward, there were no excuses. But no real answers.

"The first half we played pretty good defense," defensive end Leonard Little
said. "The second half, we just fell all to pieces."

To a man, Rams defenders insisted their run defense will be better in 2007 than
it has been the past three seasons. Sunday's numbers suggested otherwise: 186
rushing yards allowed and 4.9 yards a carry.

"I thought we tired a little bit in the fourth," Linehan said. "And give them
credit. They were able to sustain drives and stay on the field."

Meanwhile, the Rams could do nothing offensively most of the second half.

"We moved the ball at the beginning and then hit a lull," quarterback Marc
Bulger said in the understatement of the day.

It was more like falling into an abyss than hitting a lull. Losing Pro Bowl
left tackle Orlando Pace to a shoulder injury late in the first half, the Rams
had only one first down from the start of the third quarter until midway
through the fourth. By that time, Carolina had made it a two-score game with a
24-13 lead. Over that same span, the Rams were outgained 239 yards to 49.

Compounding the offensive woes for St. Louis were the two lost fumbles by
Jackson. Normally one of the most sure-handed running backs in the league,
Jackson fumbled only four times in 436 touches last season.

"You can't give a testimony without going through a test," Jackson said. "I
didn't intend for my season to start off like this, but since it did, I will
not back down. The fumbles, there's no excuse. We work on ballhandling each and
every practice. It's something that happened, and like I said, it's a trial and
I will get through."

But given the fact that Jackson didn't carry once and had only two touches
overall in the preseason, it became open season on second-guessing. Could the
fumbles have been avoided or at least the likelihood of them lessened with
more work for Jackson in exhibition play?

"I don't know," Linehan said.

"I don't think the lack of preseason carries cause that," Jackson said. "In one
incident, a guy's helmet hit the ball (the first fumble). And the next, I ran
into the back of a guy. It was just me."

The first fumble was a killer. Three plays earlier, the Rams' defense had
produced its first takeaway of the season, when safety Corey Chavous jarred the
ball loose from Williams, with linebacker Will Witherspoon recovering the
fumble on the Carolina 49.

With 10 minutes 39 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Rams had a
chance to expand on a 13-7 lead. But on the second play after the Jackson
fumble, Delhomme hit Smith in stride for the 68-yard TD pass.

Breaking normal defensive form, the Rams had cornerback Tye Hill go wherever
Smith went with few exceptions all day.

"I loved the challenge," Hill said.

Hill did an admirable job on Smith except for the one b-i-g play. Smith
appeared to gain separation by pushing off on the play, but Hill made no
excuses.

"I just wish I could get that play back," Hill said. "Because me, personally, I
felt like that was a momentum changer. Whether he pushed me, whether he didn't,
they still got a touchdown. That's the way I've got to look at it, and that's
the reality."

Jackson's second fumble didn't immediately lead to Carolina points, but it
contributed to a big change in field position that eventually led to the first
of two field goals by John Kasay. Once Carolina got the lead, the Panthers gave
the Rams more Cover 2 looks, a protective defensive shell designed to guard
against the deep ball.

So all in all, a day that began with promise deteriorated into a day to forget.

"Thank God there's 16 games, and not one," wide receiver Isaac Bruce said.