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Zero: Panthers shut out Rams in Carolina
By Mike Cranston
AP SPORTS WRITER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Who knew that weekly steak dinners would be the cure to Carolina's defensive struggles?
The Panthers sacked Marc Bulger seven times and shut out St. Louis 15-0 on Sunday, the fifth straight loss for the Rams. Jake Delhomme threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith, and the Panthers' dominating defense made it stand up.
The Panthers came into the season feeling they had the best defense in the league. But Carolina struggled with injuries and chemistry. The problems magnified when Dallas scored 25 fourth-quarter points in a game three weeks ago.
Safety Mike Minter called a players-only meeting a few days later, suggesting all defensive players meet for dinner each Thursday night.
Since then the Panthers have allowed 10 points in two games. The Rams, devastated by the loss of Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace in last week's game, were shut out for the first time since 1998.
Mike Rucker had two sacks, including one for a safety with 2:24 left, while former Ram Damione Lewis and Chris Draft each had 1.5 sacks for Carolina, which tied a team record for sacks in a game.
"I don't know if (the dinners) are the magic formula, but they are a piece of the puzzle," Rucker said. "It's harder for me to shut down on you if I know you personally. I think it makes me play harder if I know you personally."
Rookie DeAngelo Williams took over for injured running back DeShaun Foster and rushed for 114 yards on 20 carries as the Panthers (6-4) won their second straight game and moved into a first-place tie with New Orleans in the NFC South.
The Panthers, coming in ranked 28th in the league in rushing, had a team-record 244 yards on the ground against the Rams, who have allowed seven different running back to rush for over 100 yards.
"Any back in the country that was in the backfield could have been in the backfield for us today would have rushed for 100 yards," Williams said. "They were just doing that good of a job up front."
Bulger was 19-of-34 for 142 yards and two interceptions, while the Rams (4-6) dropped five passes -- three by Isaac Bruce, who left in the fourth quarter with blurry vision.
On 12 possessions, the Rams had nine punts, an interception, a fumble and a safety as they finished with 111 yards. All from a team that was averaging more than 22 points a game.
"For us to come in and put up a dismal performance like that is very humbling," said running back Steven Jackson, who was held to 27 yards on seven carries.
The Rams, forced to shuffle their offensive line after losing Pace, had no answer to the Panthers' pass rush. Carolina, sending six or seven defenders on nearly every play, sacked Bulger five times in the first half.
Carolina's banged up secondary was never threatened despite being without starting cornerback Ken Lucas (thigh). Rookie Richard Marshall started opposite Chris Gamble.
Christian Morton, signed off the practice squad less than a month ago, intercepted Bulger deep in Rams' territory late in the third quarter. It led to John Kasay's 34-yard field goal that put the Panthers head 13-0 heading into the fourth quarter.
With just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Dion Byrum, signed on Thursday off Tampa Bay's practice squad, ripped the ball away from Torry Holt to end the Rams chances.
"We held a team like that, with all their weapons, to 15 points. You would think you could win a game, but we came out and pitched a goose egg," Holt said.
The Panthers led 3-0 late in the second quarter when Delhomme lofted a deep pass down the left sideline. Smith extended his arm to create some space against Oshiomogho Atogwe, caught the ball at the 15, and beat Corey Chavous to the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown.
Smith appeared to injure his left shoulder early in the third quarter. After being helped off the field, Smith vomited in the trash can -- the second straight week he was sick during a game. Smith returned on the next series, had four catches for 90 yards.
The Panthers, who came in averaging 92.3 yards rushing per game, dominated despite losing Foster in the second quarter to an elbow injury. X-rays were negative but Foster, who had nine carries for 63 yards, did not return.
Delhomme was 13-of-25 for 191 yards and an interception. He was sacked twice by La'Roi Glover.
Notes: Keyshawn Johnson had eventful back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. After catching a pass over the middle, Johnson tried to stiff arm rookie cornerback Tye Hill, but ripped off his helmet and was called for a 15-yard face mask penalty. On the next play the Panthers tried a trick play, but Johnson's pass for Smith was badly underthrown and intercepted -- by Hill. ... The Rams' last shutout loss was 14-0 Miami in Oct. 1998. ... The Rams wore white pants for the first time since they moved from Los Angeles.
Re: Zero: Panthers shut out Rams in Carolina"Any back in the country that was in the backfield could have been in the backfield for us today would have rushed for 100 yards," Williams said.