The defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams are back to begin their 2019 campaign and attempt to return to the Super Bowl. Their first obstacle on that road: the Carolina Panthers.
The Rams and Panthers are meeting for the first time since November 6, 2016, in Los Angeles, the first season in L.A. for the Rams. The Panthers won, 13-10, with Greg Olsen catching the only touchdown pass of the game in the first quarter. This will be the first meeting in Charlotte since October 20, 2013. The Panthers doubled up the Rams that day, 30-15. Captain Munnerlyn took an interception 45 yards for a touchdown and Graham Gano kicked three field goals in the win.
The Rams will be playing their first game since losing Super Bowl LIII and since dishing out contracts, seemingly left and right. The big one, of course, was the four-year, $134 million extension for quarterback Jared Goff. Now it’s time to prove himself and prove he is worth all that money, which includes an NFL-record $110 million guaranteed.
Goff and company did not see any work during the preseason, something that has become more widely used throughout the league. They’ll see their first major work since last season and it comes against a new-look Panthers defense.
Carolina will now run a 3-4 scheme, at least primarily. Carolina will switch defenses and mix in 4-3 looks. Either way, the Rams will have to deal with Carolina’s “big three” up front of Gerald McCoy, Kawann Short and Dontari Poe.
The hybrid look means the Panthers will have plenty of edge players attacking Goff and dropping back into coverage. Mario Addison will start on one side on the outside in the 3-4 and rookie Brian Burns figures to see plenty of work as well. Bruce Irvin is out with a hamstring injury.
For the Rams to be successful Sunday on offense, they need to keep those players away from Goff and be able to attack the Panthers’ secondary, which can be shaky at times. Eric Reid is still a top option at safety and Donte Jackson had a terrific rookie season. But James Bradberry left quite a bit to be desired and Tre Boston isn’t fully up to speed with the Panthers. The Rams’ trio at wide receiver, Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp, are certainly good enough to cause problems and mismatches for the Panthers on defense.
The rushing attack will always have plenty of eyes on it as well, as the question from last season’s playoff run has carried over into 2019: how effective and healthy will Todd Gurley be? Whoever is in the backfield, whether it’s Gurley or Malcolm Brown or rookie Darrell Henderson, they all have to be wary of No. 59 for Carolina, Luke Kuechly, manning the middle of the defense. Shaq Thompson isn’t so bad himself.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams’ stud defense will help welcome Cam Newton back to the field. Newton’s shoulder derailed the second half of 2018 and ultimately led to the Panthers losing seven straight games and missing the playoffs. Newton played three series in the third preseason game against the Patriots before injuring his ankle. He was seen in a walking boot, but that was more precautionary than anything and he hasn’t even appeared on the injury report this week. Cam is good to go.
The Rams will also have to contend with a potential MVP candidate in Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey is coming off one of the best seasons ever for a running back, setting a record for most catches in a season for a running back with 107. He was also third in the NFL last season with 1,965 total yards. He has a legitimate chance to reach 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards. Only Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk have accomplished this.
This is where a player like Cory Littleton will pay huge dividends. Littleton had a fantastic 2018 season, his first as a starter. Overall, the perception was he did not come up big in the Super Bowl. But he did have an interception. This is his chance to get back on track against one of the most dynamic running backs in the league.
The trenches will also play a key role in this one. The Rams lost some pieces from last season, led by Rodger Saffold. But former third-round pick Joe Noteboom and former fourth-round pick Brian Allen will help spearhead the interior of the offensive line, along with Austin Blythe, who started 2018 very well before a rough finish. The Rams still sport one of the best left tackles in the league in Andrew Whitworth and also just gave a new contract to right tackle Rob Havenstein. They’ll have to contend with the previously-mentioned new-look, hybrid defense of the Panthers.
Carolina, on the other hand, will obviously have their hands full dealing with Aaron Donald and his crew. The Panthers’ interior line has to figure out a way to keep Donald neutralized. But keep an eye on Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler versus Daryl Williams and Taylor Moton. Those are two excellent defensive ends against two excellent offensive tackles.
This has the makings of a close battle. Both teams feel they have something to prove. Carolina looks to show 2018 was a fluke, where they lost seven straight and will try to reclaim their NFC South crown. The Rams are hoping to avoid the Super Bowl loser hangover. And they’ll battle the dreaded curse of a west coast team playing an east coast team at 1:00 eastern.
It’s Week 1 and football is finally back. Everyone is a winner here. Well, except for one of these teams.