Rams-Panthers: 5 Things To Watch
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch

Comings and Goings

Since the Rams' move to St. Louis in 1995, only 11 teams have rushed for 200 or more yards against them. Carolina became one of those teams last Jan. 10, in its double-overtime playoff victory over the Rams. The Rams were outgained on the ground 216 yards to 64 on the ground. The Rams must balance out those rushing totals Sunday, or it's going to be a long day. At least Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster won't be able to kick the run defense around. They're both on injured reserve. But the Panthers always seem to find a way to run the football, even if it's Nick Goings doing the running.

Goings began the season as the Panthers' No. 2 fullback. But he has topped 100 yards rushing three weeks in a row, including a team-high 122 yards last week in New Orleans.

"He's a north-south runner," Rams DT Ryan Pickett said. "He just gets the ball and runs right down hill. And the holes usually open for him."

Goings isn't very fast. He has decent size (6-0, 225). He's a blue-collar player who's making the most of his opportunity.

The Rams are hoping for a similar approach and similar results Sunday from Arlen Harris, who's making his first start of the season in place of the injured Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, who both have bruised knees. It wouldn't be surprising to see Faulk get some spot duty - maybe more if Harris struggles. But Jackson appears to be in no position to play, walking stiff-legged and not practicing all week.

Everything's Jake

Last season's Cajun sensation, Panthers QB Jake Delhomme has been counted on to carry more of the load on offense because of the injuries at running back. Delhomme's completion percentage was down, and his interception total up, early in the season. But like the Carolina team as a whole, Delhomme has been doing a lot of things right lately.

Over the past six games, he has a 100.2 passer rating, with 13 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. And he's been able to get the ball down field. Over the past five games, the Panthers have 23 pass plays of 20 yards or more. That's a league high over that stretch - one more than the Rams.

"He's got the big arm," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "He has that Brett Favre type of arm. He can zing it down the field, and has terrific accuracy."

The Moose is loose

Last year at this time, the talk in Carolina was about dumping WR Muhsin Muhammad. His production was down. He was dropping passes. And Steve Smith had developed into Delhomme's favorite target. But Carolina kept Muhammad around, and it's a good thing. Smith suffered a season-ending broken leg in the 2004 opener.

Muhammad has responded by playing some of the best football of his career. Over the past five games, Muhammad has been one of the most productive receivers in the NFL, with 32 catches for 566 yards and six TD catches. In fact, no one in the league has more receiving yards over that span.

"He's definitely their go-to guy, and he's been coming through for them," Rams safety Adam Archuleta said. "But just like every week, you line up and you've got to stop somebody."

This week, it's imperative that the Rams stop the Moose, or at least slow him down.

What's my line?

C Jeff Mitchell is the only member of Carolina's offensive line who has returned to play the same position he did a year ago. Offseason defections and in-season injuries led to some bumpy moments for this unit in the early season. But not any more.

"Watching film early in the year to now is a big difference," Pickett said. "They're doing a real good job running the ball. They're coming off the ball real hard."

Jordan Gross, the No. 8 overall selection in the 2003 draft, has made a successful switch to left tackle after playing right tackle as a rookie. He has been surprisingly good as a run blocker, which is not supposed to be his forte. The Panthers do a lot of running his way.

Rookie Travelle Wharton has played very well the past seven games as the Panthers' starting left guard. Todd Fordham has filled the void at right tackle caused by Adam Meadows' retirement in the middle of training camp.

High hopes on defense?

Did the light switch finally go on for the Rams defense last week against San Francisco?

"It was a great effort," Pickett said. "If you watched film, there wasn't that many missed tackles. There wasn't anybody out of their gaps. That was the biggest thing."

Never mind the *****' 1-11 record. Any time you hold an NFL team to 160 yards, it's an excellent day's work. In terms of yards allowed, it was the second-best effort for the Rams since the move to St. Louis. (In 2001, Carolina was held to 146 yards in a 48-14 loss to the Rams.)

If the defense can hold up its end of the deal against Carolina - and over the final four games of the regular season - the Rams will be in the playoffs next month.