Rams Fall to Panthers
Sunday, September 9, 2007
By Nick Wagoner
For one half and one special teams play, it appeared the Rams were well on their way to exorcising any remaining demons from the last time they played Carolina.
But any momentum gained from a first half in which the offense looked solid, the defense held up and the special teams did its job, was lost in a third quarter that changed the outcome of the game.
Carolina took advantage of costly turnovers; a key injury and a shaky second-half defense on its way to a 27-13 win against the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday. The loss drops the Rams to 0-1 to open the season and the Panthers move to 1-0 with the victory.
Coach Scott Linehan said the most disappointing part was that his team had a legitimate opportunity to put the Panthers away and was unable to come up with the plays needed to get the job done.
“For two and a half quarters we were in a fairly good position,” Linehan said. “We played fairly good defense with good field position and then we had two critical turnovers which ultimately became the number one critical variable to not winning the game. It ended up being a big difference.”
Indeed, running back Steven Jackson did something he said he couldn’t remember ever doing in a football game. On two consecutive carries in the third quarter, Jackson coughed up fumbles that gave the Panthers two scoring opportunities.
Nursing a 13-7 lead, the Rams appeared poised to take a two-score advantage after Corey Chavous forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Will Witherspoon. The first takeaways of the season gave the Rams the ball at Carolina’s 49 and a 14-yard completion had the Rams on the verge of pushing the lead further.
But Jackson searched for extra yards after a 6-yard pickup and safety Chris Harris jarred the ball loose. Defensive end Julius Peppers recovered and it set up the biggest play of the game.
Two plays into the ensuing possession quarterback Jake Delhomme hit star receiver Steve Smith, who had blown past cornerback Tye Hill, for a 68-yard touchdown and a 14-13 lead the Panthers would never relinquish.
“He’s a play maker,” defensive end Leonard Little said. “He always plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s one of the best receivers in the league.”
Even with that quick shift in momentum, the Rams had plenty of opportunities to get back in the game. But two plays into their next possession, Jackson ran into the back of receiver Torry Holt and lost the ball again. This time, cornerback Chris Gamble recovered at the Rams’ 26.
The defense was able to bail the Rams out of the situation with another fumble recovery of their own, but it wasn’t enough to spark the offense.
After a quick start, Jackson found himself struggling. He picked up 31 yards on seven carries in the opening quarter, but finished with 58 yards on 18 carries with the two fumbles.
Jackson described his day as a “rough one.”
“Tests come, tests go,” Jackson said. “You just have to be able to withstand the storm. You can’t give a testimony without going through a test. I didn’t expect my season to start off like this but since it did I will not back down.”
Of course, Jackson wasn’t the only Ram struggling to find an offensive rhythm. On the opening drive, that unit looked smooth as it went 67 yards on 15 plays and converted all five third down attempts to set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to Holt from quarterback Bulger.
That drive gave the offense some momentum and confidence, but it didn’t matter as the offensive line lost another key piece. Already without starting guard and key run blocker Richie Incognito because of a sprained ankle, the Rams lost left tackle Orlando Pace late in the second quarter.
Pace’s sprained shoulder kept him out for the rest of the day and Adam Goldberg replaced him at left tackle.
Without Pace, the Rams offense seemed to take a hit and any ideas of getting the ball down field were essentially discarded.
“Some of it was the fact that we didn’t want to put a guy who hasn’t played a whole lot at left tackle to be in a bad position,” Linehan said.
Goldberg fared pretty well all things considered, but receiver Isaac Bruce says it will always change what a team can do offensively when it loses a player of Pace’s caliber.
“He’s a big part of it,” Bruce said. “He’s the catalyst on the offensive line and a big guy we like to run behind. It has to change (what you do). The guy is a seven or eight time Pro Bowler and if he’s not in there it changes things.”
Coming out of halftime with a 13-7 lead, the Rams got an immediate boost in the form of an 84-yard kickoff return from Dante Hall. Again, though, the offense couldn’t muster more than a 28-yard field goal from kicker Jeff Wilkins, his second of the game.
With Pace out of the game, though, the Panthers made plenty of halftime adjustments. Carolina loaded the box with extra defenders to slow Jackson and came after Goldberg on passing downs. In the third quarter, the Rams had just 45 yards of offense and a lone first down.
In fact, the offense never generated much more after Pace went down until the game was essentially out of reach late in the game.
“We moved it well at the beginning and hit a lull,” Bulger said. “I don’t think one guy should stop our whole offense. Losing one guy, we all should have picked it up.”
Bulger finished 22-of-42 for 167 yards with a touchdown for a rating of 70.2. Holt had eight catches for 73 yards with the touchdown.
Meanwhile, the defense was coming up with some big plays, but that old problem of stopping the run continued to creep back into the picture.
Defensively, the Rams dominated the second quarter, but the unit spent so much time on the field in the second half that it was obviously wearing down. Meanwhile, the Panthers kept alternating fresh backs DeAngelo Williams and DeShaun Foster right at the Rams.
By the time the clock hit all zeroes, the Panthers had run 38 times for 186 yards, an average of 4.9 yards per attempt. Coupled with the big day from Smith (seven catches for 118 yards and a score), it was a tough day for the defense.
“I can only speak for myself and not for all the players,” Chavous said. “I definitely did some things wrong and I’m sure there are some other guys who need to be disciplined and everybody needs to do their responsibilities. It came down to us executing late and they out-executed us.”