By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Sep. 09 2007

The Rams have been at this now for more than six weeks. They reported to
training camp July 26, with one goal in mind: getting ready for the 2007
season, specifically the Sept. 9 season opener against Carolina.

Well, that day is here. But how much more do we know about the team than we did
July 26?

With changes on the interior of the offensive line, a new tight end in Randy
McMichael, and a new No. 3 wide receiver in Drew Bennett, how much better is
the offense?

With two new starters on the defensive line in James Hall and Adam Carriker,
and added depth at linebacker, will the defense be able to stop the run?

And what about special teams? There's a new coach there in Al Roberts, a new
return man in Dante Hall, and added emphasis on coverage units.

But weeks of workouts in the blistering summer sun, plus four exhibition games,
have provided few solid answers.

For the second year in a row, the first-team offense didn't score a touchdown
in preseason play.

The Rams did finish ninth in total defense and ninth in scoring defense during
the preseason, but 55-yard runs such as the one Kansas City's Kolby Smith
reeled off in the Governor's Cup game looked familiar.

So did several long kickoff and punt returns.

So what can we expect — from say, the offense — beginning with Sunday's noon
kickoff at Edward Jones Dome?

"I don't know what the offense is going to do," coach Scott Linehan said. "I
think we're going to be real, real good. I think we can go as far as we want to
take this thing. Where that is right now, I don't know."

Anything would be better than what transpired the last time the Rams played the
Panthers. Last Nov. 19 in Charlotte, N.C., the Rams were shut out 15-0. They
managed only 111 yards in offense and crossed midfield only twice. Marc Bulger
was sacked seven times, matching his career high. The Rams ran the ball only
eight times.

"It was very humbling," Linehan said. "It was tough. It was hard to stomach."

Linehan thought the team came out flat that day, and learned a harsh lesson.

"You've got to be emotionally ready, and physically and mentally ready,"
Linehan said. "In the NFL, it doesn't matter who or when you play. If you
aren't ready to go, the other team's going to get you."

The Panthers have gotten the Rams all three times they've met since the Rams'
2001 Super Bowl season. Each St. Louis defeat has come in wrenching fashion.

— In the 2003 divisional playoffs, wide receiver Steve Smith's 69-yard
touchdown reception gave the Panthers a stunning 29-23 upset victory in double
overtime.

"That playoff game — wow!" said Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon, who played
for Carolina in 2003. "You can't beat a scenario like that. ... Bam! One play
and it's over."

— In 2004, with Bulger out injured, replacement Chris Chandler threw six
interceptions in a 20-7 loss at Carolina.

Witherspoon, still at Panther at the time, got one of those interceptions.

"We got to the sideline, and it was like, 'Who's next?'" Witherspoon recalled.
"That was a crazy day."

— And then there was the 15-0 embarrassment of a year ago, a day that prompted
Linehan to "fire" himself as play-caller, giving those duties to offensive
coordinator Greg Olson.

"Hopefully, we learned a lot from the game last year," Rams defensive end
Leonard Little said.

Such as?

"Hopefully, we learned to play the run a little bit better," Little said,
laughing. "That was our Achilles' heel last year. This offseason and preseason,
we tried to focus in on stopping the run first."

On offense, no one is more eager for another crack at the Panthers than running
back Steven Jackson. He had only seven carries for only 27 yards — both season
lows — against Carolina last season.

About the safest bet for Sunday's game is that Jackson will get more than seven
carries this time around.

"Put a couple numbers before that, maybe," Bulger quipped. "Hopefully, Steven
will have some success. I know that they're good against the run, but we have
all the confidence in the world that he'll be able to get some yards no matter
how many guys they put in the box."

But after six-plus weeks of largely unrevealing buildup, seeing will be
believing.

"There's been so much talk and stuff leading up to this point," wide receiver
Torry Holt said. "Now it's a matter of can we go out there and look like the
Colts looked (Thursday) night. They looked really, really fine; really sharp
for their first regular-season game. What that does is send a message to
everybody."

The Rams want to send just that kind of message Sunday at the dome.