Overview: Oddsmakers are favoring the Rams on the road by anywhere between 1.5 and 2.5 points. It's the season opener for both teams, who are expected to contend for NFC playoff spots in 2019. This will be the first outing for the explosive Rams offense since they laid an egg in Super Bowl LIII, scoring only three points. Since Los Angeles Rams Head Coach Sean McVay essentially rested his starters in the preseason (an increasingly common NFL practice), it will be interesting to see if the Rams will appear rusty coming out of the gate.
Rams Offense vs Panthers Defense: On paper, this is the most intriguing part of the game, putting what is believed the teams' strongest units against one another. The Carolina Panthers, which frequently shifts from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 alignment and vice versa, will be missing pass-rushing linebacker/defensive end Bruce Irvin, who is out with an injury. He will mostly be replaced by rookie Bruce Burns, Carolina's first-round selection of the 2019 NFL Draft from Florida State University. At 6-3 and 250 pounds, Burns has bulked up a little since his college days with the Seminoles. Linebacker Thomas Davis, a Panther stalwart on defense for the last decade, is gone after the Panthers decided not to re-sign him. But any discussion of the Panther’s linebackers has to start with Luke Kuechly, who along with Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks, is probably the premier middle linebacker in the NFL.. Intelligent and athletic, Kuechly is one of those rare defenders who you must account for on every play. He'll be joined in both defensive alignments by Shaq Thompson, a former number one draft choice out of the University of Washington. Thompson is one of the reasons the Panthers felt comfortable letting Davis walk, and they are expecting big things from him as a full-time starter in 2019.
The Rams, meanwhile, will be debuting their 2019 offensive line, and there are some questions about that unit. No longer there is guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan, a couple of heady veterans who helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl last season. They are replaced by second-year Joseph Noteboom at guard and second-year Brian Allen at center, both players who saw a smatter of playing time in 2018. They'll be facing a Panther defensive line that will feature multiple fronts after under-performing in 2018. But Carolina does have some talent up front. Veteran tackles Dontari Poe and Kawann Short both tended to disappear last season and are looking to bounce back this 2019 season. Poe, a mountain of a man at 6-3 and around 350, will be the primary nose tackle when the Panthers go into their 3-4 alignment. Brian Allen is giving up roughly 50 pounds versus Poe, so he may need some help moving him out if the Rams intend to run the ball at the heart of the Panther’s defense.
Addressing the running game, one of the key subplots to this game will be the whole Todd Gurley injury saga. As every NFL fan knows, the Rams star running back saw relatively little action in the 2018 NFC title game and Super Bowl LIII, sparking a torrent of speculation about his health and specifically that of his surgically-repaired knee. When Gurley is healthy, he is probably the best all-around running back in the NFL, despite the media hype surrounding Dallas Cowboys Zeke Elliot and the immense talent of the New York Giants' Saquon Barkley.
So, is he healthy? Media reports over the last few months have ranged in tone from ''He's absolutely fine" to ''He is done as an NFL back," covering about every shade in between. The Rams insist that he is good to go on Sunday and Gurley will not be on any sort of snap count.
But head coach Sean McVay has also promised touches for rookie Darrell Henderson out of the University of Memphis and veteran backup Malcolm Brown, even hinting that all three backs could see the field at once against the Panthers. Henderson, the third-round pick in this year's 2019 NFL Draft is compared to New Orleans Saints Alvin Kamara type running back, who is capable of breaking off big plays on the ground and as a receiver. Brown is more of a power-type back, a bit of a plodder in terms of breakaway speed, but a tough, hard-nosed inside runner who has played well when given the chance over the past couple of years. For the Rams fans, the effectiveness and composition of the running game on Sunday is almost as important as notching a win.
The Rams boast one of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL, and welcome back slot-receiver Cooper Kupp, a favorite target of quarterback Jared Goff when healthy. Kupp missed the second half of the season last year, despite Josh Reynolds stepped in for him and played well, his return is critical to this offense. Adding him with speedster Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, who simply catches everything thrown his way and runs great routes, give the Rams one of the best receiving units in the NFL. Don't forget about Reynolds either, who made a lot of big catches in the Super Bowl LIII run last season.
The depth of this unit could pose problems for the Panthers, who have a decent secondary not loaded with depth. Safety Eric Reid is one of the better players at his position in the NFL. Fellow safety Rashaan Gualden and corners James Bradberry and Donte Jackson are solid to above average players who make up a solid unit overall. Corn Elder will likely step in as the nickel back. None of these are bad players, but whether they can cover the deep and talented Rams receivers core on a regular basis could be one of the keys to the outcome of this game. IF the Rams can allot Goff time in the pocket and if the run game for the Rams is credible, the may be able to put up some points on Sunday’s contest.
Rams Defense vs Carolina Offense: Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton was having one of his best seasons in 2018 until a shoulder issue effected his play. He wasn't the same player down the stretch, and it showed as the Panthers ended up missing the playoffs despite s strong start. He suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, but it reportedly was not serious and he is expected and will be fine for the game. When healthy, Newton is a truly dynamic player who can beat you with his legs or his arm. While he has a very strong arm, he sometimes struggles with accuracy, and has only had one season where he finished with a completion rate of over 60 percent. Even so, he is a very dangerous player who can get hot and carry his team to victory.
Newton had arthoscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in January, all indications are that it went well and his shoulder is fine. The Panthers certainly hope so, because if he is ineffective, Carolina has virtually no shot at making the playoffs.
Running back Christian McCaffrey is the other Panther player who keeps defensive coordinators awake at night. The son of former Denver Broncos and New York Giants wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, racked up over 1,000 yards rushing last season in addition to 867 yards as a receiver. Carolina supposedly wants to scale back his workload in 2019, but the problem is that the depth behind him is not great. He played 93 percent of the Panthers offensive snaps last season. The top reserves, Cameron Artis-Payne and rookie Jordan Scarlett, don't really scare anyone.
One of the keys for the Panthers in this game is controlling the Rams defensive front with a suspect offensive line. That job didn't get any easier when starting left tackle Greg Little ruled out of Sunday’s game with an concussion. Little is expected to be replaced by Darryl Williams, who spent most of 2018 on injured reserve. He was excellent in 2017, being named second-team All-Pro. How much impact will the injury and layoff have? We will see on Sunday.
Of course, anytime you face the Rams defense, job one is containing reigning two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, an absolute monster who gives quarterbacks nightmares. Despite facing double and even triple teams last season, AD still overcame with 20.5 sacks. He was rated the number one player in the league in the NFL Network's countdown of the Top 100 players, an honor that carries added weight because it is voted upon by the players themselves. Panthers WILL need to account for Donald on every play and keep him at least somewhat under control if they are to win this game. Donald had held out for much of the past two preseasons and tended to get off to rather slow starts by his standards. Will he get off to a faster start with a full training camp behind him?
The Rams are hoping outside linebackers Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews can generate enough of a pass-rush to take some of the pressure of off AD.
The Rams will have to replace Ndumukong Suh at nose tackle, and it looks like Sebastion Joseph-Day will see most of the action, with rookie Greg Gaines also getting snaps. They lost starting inside linebacker Micah Kiser to a pectoral injury in the preseason. The Rams was pretty bad in defending the run last season, giving up an average of five yards per carry. That remains a concern, and having to replace your nose tackle with a couple of untested young players and then replace one of your starting inside linebackers doesn't help. Whether the Panthers can run the ball effectively with McCaffrey and Newton could be a key factor in this game.
The Carolina receiving corps is somewhat underwhelming on paper, although McCaffrey helps make up for that by basically serving as another receiver, and a good one at that. Tight end Greg Olsen has had a great career, but he is also coming off an injury at age 34. Devin Funchess is gone via free agency, leaving D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel as the likely starters. Moore racked up 788 yards last season, and he is considered the number one receiver on this roster. Samuel is a former second round pick who has yet to live up to expectations. These guys aren't bad, but the Rams secondary shouldn't let them have big days. If they do would could be looking at a Carolina win.
Special Teams: The Rams probably have the best special teams in the NFL, and they will have the edge in this category again on Sunday. But Carolina's special teams are actually pretty good, and this category might be close had the Panthers not lost kicker Graham Gano to a season-ending injury. Gano was money in pressure situations, and his absence could be a factor in a close game.
Prediction: There are a lot of ''x-factors" in this game. Is Todd Gurley 100 percent? Can the Panthers run on a Rams defense that had persistent problems in that area last season? How will the Rams rebuilt offensive line match up against the variable fronts they will see on Sunday? Opening day usually includes some surprises, and a Panthers win here wouldn't shock anyone. But the Rams appear to be the better team.
Rams 27, Panthers 24
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