Pre-Game Notes and Predictions: Rams at Panthers

By John Ellis

Pre-Game Notes: Rams at Panthers

I’m intrigued by the matchup of Panthers nickel corner Javien Elliot and the rotation of slot receivers for the Rams. Presumably, WR Cooper Kupp will see the majority of slot reps out of 11 personnel. Kupp has remarkably quick feet and unusual size for a slot specialist (6-2, 208). Elliott must prove his worth early on in this game, as Rams QB Jared Goff will be eager to utilize his highly-skilled safety valve after missing him last season to injury.

The special-teams situation for both teams is intriguing. For the Panthers, newly signed return man Ray Ray McCloud appears to be in line for reps today at punt and kick returner. This is a bold move by general manager Marty Hurney. The team was high on seventh-round draft pick Terry Godwin for most of camp, but after a strong pre-season opener, the rookie’s performance tailed off considerably. McCloud saw very limited action in Buffalo, but was a dynamic return specialist for Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers.

Panthers punter Michael Palardy looks to return to form from a couple of years ago after a bit of a down year in 2018. His net punting average fell from the top five in the league all the way down to 12 last season. In fact , in2017, both Palardy and Rams punter Johnny Hekker were ranked as the top two punters in the NFC in terms of net average. Palardy’s “lefty” directional kicking should present a challenge for Rams return specialist JoJo Natson. Also, be very mindful of the fake punt opportunities for Los Angeles. Special-teams coordinator John Fassell runs more of these than anybody around the league, and he’s been doing it for years with Hekker—a fantastic athlete who can do some pretty dynamic things with the ball in his hands. As odd as that sounds, keep an eye on it.

And of course, we will monitor the Panthers regular season debut of Cinderella story Joey Slye. After a 7-of-8 performance in the preseason which included a 59-yard boot, Hurney have Slye the keys to the car as Carolina placed long time kicker Graham Gano on injured reserve. Crucial as anything will be Slye’s poise and concentration on PAT’s. Carolina  has missed 12 extra points since 2015, most in the league.

The four Panthers I am closely scouting today:

Matt Paradis: we want to see how the new center in Carolina holds up against the fierce pass rush of Rams DT Aaron Donald. Paradis has struggled at times in the preseason with lesser-caliber opponents. This is his first year making line calls for the Panthers, as Ryan Kalil was in total command of this for Cam Newton’s entire career. Again, this is a tough matchup physically and mentally for the newcomer.

Curtis Samuel: this is where I think Carolina has an outstanding opportunity to exploit the back end of the Rams defense. You’ll see Samuel play outside more than inside today, and we’d like to see 10 exploit the Rams gambling CB Marcus Peters. Peters is one of the league’s elite talents on the perimeter, but often finds himself in trouble from looking in the backfield too soon and biting on double moves. From what we observes at training camp, I have little doubt: at least once or twice today, Carolina will take a deep shot with a stop and go or a deep post with Samuel.

Brian Burns. The rookie gets the start on his first ever NFL Sunday. This is a golden opportunity to showcase his remarkable speed and power. The Rams have a quality left tackle in veteran Andrew Whitworth, but even he struggled considerably in the Super Bowl against New England’s exotic mixed-bag of defensive fronts. Burns should be used as many other teams use their “joker” position backer—moving him around like a chess piece, giving him an opportunity to win matchups. I saw Bears EDGE threat Khalil Mack lined up at DT in the three technique the other night. You could even see this once or twice from Burns today. Anything to get him in a position to wreck Goff’s timing is worth a look. He has looked nothing short of stellar in the preseason. Now, let’s see if that translates into the regular season.

Cam Newton: obviously, all eyes are on Newton for several reasons. America wants to see how his foot really feels and if that will affect his role in the running game today. Newton’s ability to gain unplanned chunks of yards on the ground throughout a game often times proves to be the difference between a win and a loss. If Cam is relegated to the pocket on every snap, I feel less certain about Carolina’s chances to win this game.

I want to see if he sails the ball on his short/intermediate RPO throws. For as awesome as the deep ball looked in camp with the new shoulder, he still struggled at times with these tight window throws, with the common denominator being “high and behind”. If Newton has the freedom to make a few runs when called upon, and if the intermediate throws are on point, it could be a long day for the Rams defense.

Prediction:

These picks are always tough, especially in week one. Games are generally sloppy, as there is very little preseason of consequence to develop timing, while training camps have been highly watered-down in terms of contact and reps. I do expect some sloppy stuff on both sides, but I also expect a wide array  misdirection looks offensively from Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner. He didn’t run one bit of that in the preseason, but I can attest to the fact that he ran a considerable amount of misdirection passing in Spartanburg this year. It’s time to pull out the bag of tricks, confuse this front seven, and get them moving sideways. From there, lineup in the eye formation, as well as the spread, and pound Christian McCaffrey. They are yards to be had on the ground against this defense.

Defensively, I feel Carolina is going to have a decent amount of success mirroring what New England did in the Super Bowl. They won’t be as adept in man coverage, but Rivera does have the requisite pieces up front to show multiple looks and confuse the offensive line. The Rams have RB Todd Gurley 100% healthy and ready to go, and that presents somewhat of a challenge. Look for a healthy dose of screens to Gurley today, as this was something they did habitually before his injury last season.

Final score: Carolina 23, Los Angeles 20