The Panthers will have their hands full with Steven Jackson, 5th in the league last year at 1528 yards and 1st in the league from scrimmage. With 90 receptions, Jackson caught more balls than any Panther last year. The key to stopping him is to stay in your gap, close out plays, wrap up, and make certain you get the Rams off the field early. Last year, the Rams took Jackson's hands off the ball early after getting down, but don't expect that to happen again.
Backup Brian Leonard, a rookie, is a talented all around player but not a playmaker; Madison Hedgecock is a punishing lead blocker that will look to isolate.
Jackson will be run between the tackles; last year's distribution was mostly inside, with most success off right end, and worst off left end. The Rams are best inside, but with two components new in the line, it's hard to say how good they'll be inside. Around 80% of their runs were between the tackles last year, so gap integrity is key.
Orlando Pace is still considered all-world, but injuries last year and giving up 4.5 sacks last year took some shine off; according to Stats, Inc., Pace has given up 19.5 sacks in the last 56 games, hardly elite. Mike Rucker won't likely make a lot of headway, but hopefully can pressure Pace with some inside moves. Against the run, this should be a stalemate, as Rucker doesn't get too far upfield before reading run. On the other side, Alex Barron struggled last year, giving up 8.75 sacks and 14 penalties; the Rams will undoubtedly chip with TE Randy McMichael but back help may be limited due to Jackson's importance in the passing game.
In the middle, the team will be missing Richie Incognito, pushing Milford Brown into action against Maake Kemoeatu. Brown's barely started in the league since 2002, is a decent wall off blocker, and is susceptible against the pass, giving up 10 sacks (and 8 holds) in 28 starts. It's important that Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis get Brown on his heels early. Kris Jenkins faces 2nd year player Mark Setterstrom, a solid movement type guard with average strength; Brett Romberg is the new starting center, elevating over Andy McCollum. Romberg lacks experience, but the Panthers won't be throwing a ton of looks at the Rams; Romberg also lacks size, and the team could do well to throw a lineman in between he and Setterstrom occasionally.
The Rams added weapons last year, putting Drew Bennett in to supplant an aging Isaac Bruce, who may not play much longer. Torry Holt is still at an all-pro level, and the trio make for a big, able trio. They'll miss the speed of Kevin Curtis, however, and the team lacks a secondary deep threat. McMichael, as well, adds some short game, but the team already had shorter game. This Rams offense is predicated on efficiency, not big plays, now that Greg Olson is calling the plays instead of Linehan; because of that, the players are expected to make the plays, but aren't set up for the kill shot.
The Panthers must keep zone discipline and find ways to keep the Rams off their game. With the trio of receivers, the Panthers do have good matchups; Ken Lucas on Holt, Chris Gamble on Bruce, and Richard Marshall picking up Bennett isn't a loss for Carolina. The TE is always a concern, and the underneath coverage and including SS Chris Harris will need to come to play, stay in their zones, and stay active. If the Rams keep drives alive all day, the defense will wear down, Steven Jackson will find his groove, and the Rams will be dictating the game to the Panthers.
Rams' special teams added journeyman coach Al Roberts and beefed up their talent to bring special teams back to respectability. Dante Hall, as a returner, has declined but still has something left to give; he'll be fielding kicks and punts. Donnie Jones, an RFA signing this year, was top ten with Miami last season. The lefty gets good hangtime and his balls tend to swirl coming down in wind, though that may not be as exaggerated in the dome.
Wilkins is an automatic kicker from most areas, Wilkins is a below average kickoff man, getting touchbacks 13.3% of the time. Coverage units could be better as well.