By Barry Waller

Gridiron Gateway

It came as no shock that the Rams lost to the Carolina Panthers Sunday, because no one picked the Rams to come out of hostile territory with a victory over a very hot team without their MVP, Marc Bulger, or either of their talented halfbacks, Marshall Faulk or Steven Jackson. After watching the 20-7 loss, it was especially clear that Jackson could have gained big yardage against a defense that was dropping its linebackers and safeties deep into coverage at the snap.

Instead the Rams, who have not had much success in Carolina since 1996, were forced to put the offense on the shoulders of backup quarterback Chris Chandler. The results were all too reminiscent of past failures there, such as the 45-13 drubbing in 1996, the 20-13 loss in 1998, Kurt Warner’s worst game until his last start, a 16-3 loss in 2000. Even in the Rams best year, Carolina was a tough nut to crack on the road, as the 1999 championship club squeaked by their then division rival 34-21, and the 14-2 team of 2001 barely eked out a 38-32 nail-biter over the eventual 1-15 Panthers. Marshall Faulk gained over 200 yards in that win.

Without a top running threat, Chris Chandler found the holes in the pass defense to be very small, and quick to close. Even with a lot of time to set up, a passer would have to really be on his game to succeed against Carolina, or any NFL defense able to set up against a one dimensional offense. When the front four can apply pressure on almost every play without having to blitz, or using late blitzing free players as a weapon, an immobile quarterback has no chance.

That’s what happened to Chandler Sunday, as he had his worst game as a pro, and threw the second most interceptions ever in a game by a Rams quarterback. Nothing went right for Chandler or the Rams offense Sunday, as two of the six picks were tipped balls, and his best play, a 54-yard highlight film touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce after escaping the rush, was called back because of a holding penalty on Adam Timmerman. The call was borderline, and as the Rams guard explained after the game, “ If they wanted, they could call holding on every play.”

From the get go, everyone should have known that the only way the Rams could win would be to keep defensive ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers out of the backfield, and in the end, they just didn’t get it done. If they had, then there is a good chance more plays like the 75-yard touchdown catch and run by Torry Holt on the last play of the first quarter could have been duplicated, just as the negated Bruce catch had done. Holt starred for the second straight week with a six catch 151 yard day.

The Rams had two blockers on Peppers, but without a running threat, the Panthers were free to use more line stunts and zone blitzes, and Peppers created havoc all day, especially early when the rush began to rattle Chandler. The 39-year old veteran never recovered, and unlike Bulger, wasn’t able to fight through it and deliver in the end. This game had many similarities to the playoff loss in St. Louis, with the inability to move the ball in the red zone and the turnover problems for the Rams.

To their credit, it didn’t appear that the Rams players ever quit playing as hard as they were able, even when they had to know that Chandler was toast. The Rams defense certainly was helped in the second half by the willingness of the Panthers to sit on a 20-7 lead. However, watching Pisa Tinoisamoa re-injure his shoulder, but ignore the pain to keep throwing his body at 6-1, 225lb Panthers running back Nick Goings with the game probably lost was nothing short of inspirational.

Travis Fisher, who still has pins in his arm from an early season break, and a jaw that was wired shut for a few weeks from a blow to the kisser, also showed tremendous guts and determination all day. Defensive end Bryce Fisher recorded the Rams only two sacks, but the line applied decent pressure on Jake Delhomme after an awful start that saw the Rams fall behind 14-0 late in the first quarter.

Free safety Antuan Edwards had another solid game, which is especially crucial since it appears that Aeneas Williams may be done for the year. Williams left early in the first quarter after his shoulder was again re-injured, and his future is in doubt. Kevin Garrett replaced Williams in the nickel package and struggled early.

More than anything, falling behind by that far on the road, against a very good defense, changed the whole complexion of the game. The Panthers could gamble more on defense, and they have always been very good at taking the ball away under head coach John Fox. The gambling backfired on Holt’s long touchdown, and later on the Bruce play, but it also lead to the six picks, and thus, the game.

Had Martz known his defense, after starting so poorly, could shut out the Panthers the second half, maybe he would have settled for field goals more readily the two times they had passes intercepted in the red zone, or the late unsuccessful fourth down play. Had the Rams cashed the first drive to start the game for three, instead of Chandler throwing his first pick, and had Martz played it safe before halftime, like he did at the end of regulation in the playoff loss, the Rams could well have trailed by a single score in the fourth quarter.

Maybe then, Arlen Harris, starting his first game in 2004, would have been more involved in the game plan throughout the contest. Harris was pretty pedestrian rushing the ball, averaging 3.2 yards on 19 carries, but he was effective in the passing game with 41 yards on four receptions, and gave it everything he had every play.

On this day, the officials definitely share a D grade with the visiting team. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to blow many calls in the Rams favor. Their part in the game was minimal, because the Rams did enough to lose without their “help”, but the NFL has got to demand better from the zebras than they got Sunday, and have been getting all around the league in recent weeks. The failure to call the Panthers for invading the buffer zone on a Shaun McDonald fair catch was especially awful.

The Rams go to Arizona to try to get back to .500 and hopefully regain the lead in the NFC West, as the Seahawks meet the 9-4 Jets in the Meadowlands. The biggest fear right now is that Chandler won’t be able to play better, and that Jackson, Faulk, Tinoisamoa, Travis Fisher, and other beat up defenders won’t be able to play, and play well.

Hopefully, giving so much in a wasted effort this week won’t cripple the Rams in the desert. If it does, the 2004 season will be over early for Ramsnation.