By R.B. Fallstrom
ASSOCIATED PRESS
09/07/2007


ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Ten years ago, Orlando Pace was the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL draft. Now he's the graybeard of the St. Louis Rams' offensive line, coming off an injury that prematurely ended his season and ready to prove himself all over again.

Pace's role in solidifying an inexperienced line could be an early key for the Rams, who open against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in a matchup of .500 teams from last year. He's approaching this year with youthful exuberance produced from the down time a torn triceps created.

"Just to be back playing football again, I'm excited," Pace said. "Sometimes in the 10th or 11th year you can get into a flow of things, but I'm excited.

"You want to go back out there and prove you can still play at a high level, and that's one of my goals."

Pace, who made seven straight Pro Bowls before last season, is 10 pounds lighter than last year, although he's far from wasting away at 6-7 and 320 pounds. That's a concession to his advanced age and a bid to keep him at elite status.

He plans to hit the ground running, opening holes for Steven Jackson and protecting Marc Bulger's blind side, in the opener.
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"I think the older you get, probably the lighter you have to play just because it's easier on your joints," Pace said. "I think it'll help me immensely this year."

The offense is loaded with talent but coming off a mediocre preseason. The starters produced no touchdowns, although feature back Steven Jackson never carried the ball, made ceremonial appearances in two games and didn't even get on the field in the finale.

The Rams were sixth overall in total offense last year and have upgraded with third wide receiver Drew Bennett and pass-catching tight end Randy McMichael, along with drafting a player to spell Jackson, second-rounder Brian Leonard. Pace expects high scoring.

"I know the preseason probably didn't show a lot of it," he said. "But once we get into the flow, get into the rhythm, I think we'll score a lot of points."

The Panthers' 15-0 shutout over the Rams last November was the low water mark in many respects of coach Scott Linehan's first season in St. Louis. After that game, Linehan decided to delegate play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

"We weren't very good," Bulger said. "I don't think we made it past the 50. Maybe once."

That game was a high point for the Panthers, who then lost four in a row to fall out of contention in the NFC South.

Carolina, under new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson, hopes to push the Rams' suspect defense in the opener. The Panthers averaged 16.8 points last season, were 24th in rushing and had the NFL's worst third-down conversion rate.

Like the Rams, the Panthers didn't have a lot to show for their preseason. So coach John Fox is cautiously optimistic.

"As a coach, I'm not sure you're ever comfortable," Fox said. "You're usually one or two games away from disaster.

"I like this team. We've got a lot of things to work on and we're going into a tough place to play, so we'll find out a lot this week."

Carolina hasn't won its opener in three years, a recurring topic on the roster much of the summer.

"Last year, Atlanta came in and whipped us," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "The year before we were playing New Orleans post-Katrina, and we played OK that game. The year before that, we didn't play well.

"It's been one thing or another."

The opener will mark the return of Panthers' linebacker Dan Morgan, who missed the final 15 games last year after sustaining at least the fifth concussion of his career. Rams center Andy McCollum also missed the last 15 games with a knee injury, then lost his starting job to Brett Romberg in training camp.

That throws senior status on the 31-year-old, newly svelte Pace.

"I'm that old guy, I guess I'm the next in line," Pace said. "It's cool. I accept the leadership role on the offensive line and I told the guys if they need to talk about anything, I'm here."