3TFO: Rams @ Panthers, Week 7
Rick Drummond | October 18, 2013

Each coming off wins, the 3-3 St. Louis Rams and 2-3 Carolina Panthers square off in Charlotte in a matchup of, among other things, the No. 1 overall draft picks who marked the before and after of the rookie wage scale’s implementation.

The $56M difference in rookie contracts for their signal-callers won’t factor in, but current rookies for each side could have an impact. Let’s look at that and a few other thoughts to help prepare your viewing eye for this weekend’s contest between a pair of teams who hope to be headed in the right direction.

The Non-Austin Option

With the draft splash made to bring Tavon Austin aboard, hopes in St. Louis had to be high that he would prove a key piece in an improved offensive attack. That hasn’t been the case through the season’s early going as a four-game string of red grades led to him effectively being removed from the plan in Week 6 — in fact, the team favored an offensive look that nearly erased the slot receiver spot altogether.

On the year, St. Louis has used an ‘11-personnel’ offensive grouping (one RB, one TE, three WRs) on just over 50% of their plays, a number that is slightly above the league average, but their second favorite has proven to be their two-tight end option. That ’12 personnel’ look was put to full use against Houston last week as the Rams went with it on 31 plays compared to just seven snaps for the three-WR set they had previously featured. That move pushed Austin to the sideline and made the Jared Cook-Lance Kendricks tight end combo their attack of choice.

Should we see that again this week, Cook and Kendricks will face a Carolina linebacking corps that has fared well in coverage this season. Thomas Davis is currently fourth among 4-3 outside linebackers with a +3.6 coverage grade and second with a Yards per Coverage Snap figure of just 0.63, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is in the Top 10 at his position in both areas as well. If safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Lester get into the mix, their Top 20 coverage grades also suggest the Panther defense will be up to the challenge of corralling the Ram duo, who, outside of Cook’s monstrous opener, have not done major damage.

Considering LaFell and Ginn

The common first thought for defenses when coming up with a plan to limit Cam Newton’s passing efforts has been to take away Steve Smith. While that’s still a reasonable idea, there may be more to the puzzle at this stage. A look at the PFF ‘Wide Receiver Rating’ Signature Stat adds some perspective and might drive attention to the Panthers’ next WR receiving options.

While Smith remains the most common target among Carolina receivers, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn have been working out as more worthy choices. When throwing Smith’s way, Newton has logged a passer rating of 70.9, good for 66th on the list of 93 qualifying receivers. LaFell and Ginn, on the other hand, sit next to each other in 14th and 15th with marks of 114.6 and 113.8, respectively — numbers that best the likes of Randall Cobb and Brandon Marshall.

With the Rams’ secondary banged up, matchups will be tough regardless, but whether it’s LaFell lined up in the slot inside Smith, or Ginn in the game on the opposite end of the formation, eyes will have to be the other wide-out options.

Five-Man Fight in the Middle

Even on a quick look at the Carolina defense, the rookie pairing on their line’s interior stands out. First-rounder Star Lotulelei and second-rounder Kawann Short have each garnered attention but it’s been Short who has come on of late. Lotulelei’s hot start is holding his season grade (+5.2) above Short’s (+4.1) for now, but he’s trailing his teammate in both Run Stop Percentage and Pass Rushing Productivity, and the two are trending in opposite directions.

Lining up across from them this week, and providing the next task for the first-year growth, will be the St. Louis trio of center Scott Wells, and guards Chris Williams and Harvey Dahl. Wells, outside of his brutal outing against San Francisco in Week 4, has shown well as a pass blocker (he leads all centers in Pass Blocking Efficiency and holds the No. 2 pass-blocking grade), but his run blocking remains an issue as it has since he left Green Bay. The guards to either side of him balance that to an extent, listing run blocking among their strengths while surrendering a combined 30 total pressures as pass protectors.