The curious thing about Jim Haslett's defenses are that they have significantly underperformed since leaving the Steelers; the former Buffalo linebacker and Steelers coordinator had a great D in 2000, as a first year head coach, but in general, the offense always outperformed until 2005, when the offense hit bottom after letting Mike McCarthy go. His Saint defenses had good pass stats twice, but overall were dogs; his Ram defense last year was no exception, finishing 28th in points/23rd in yards. Nonetheless, they were 4th against the pass, and Carolina will have to generate something there. Realistically, though, the team should run enough that passing should feature combo routes and playaction.
Much like last year, the key should be running the ball, and the Rams are small enough inside that this should be relatively easy. The Rams have methodically gotten rid of their bigger DTs, and now have penetration in 1st round pick Adam Carriker and former Saint Laroi Glover. Glover, a 2006 signing, and longtime Ram Leonard Little are the holdovers; Carriker and DE James Hall are new, Hall being traded from Detroit where he had 5 sacks last year.
Carriker, at 290, is new to DT; Glover is a generous 290. Hall, at 280, and Little at 260, don't add weight either. They don't get any bigger behind that, with Will Witherspoon at 6'1, 230 and Pisa Tinoisamoa at 6'2, 233. It leaves the defensive front moderately quick, but they haven't shown they can make big plays or stop the run to setup big plays.
Little will test Travelle Wharton early and often; Little's 13 sacks were 2nd in the NFC last year, and his moves are traditionally outside. Wharton must stay in front of Little and anchor, keeping Little upfield but without penetrating. Hall may be a curious matchup for Jordan Gross if Gross gives up too much room; Hall has a good bullrush and isn't much of an outside guy. Gross must not dropstep and give too much at the snap - he needs to engage Hall early and stop inside penetration. The need for TE help on Hall isn't expected to be much at all; the Panthers will probably be more likely to protect with backs, most likely to the left to aid Wharton. Little added one sack last year v/s Gross.
Glover had 2 sacks, 2 QB pressures, 8 tackles and a forced fumble against Carolina last year, facing Evan Mathis and Geoff Hangartner. This year's duo of Justin Hartwig and Ryan Kalil will have their hands full, but should be able to take on Glover at the under tackle easily enough. Hartwig will also be helping Mike Wahle with Carriker, who can get penetration as well. The team won't need to go to 3-step drops all day, but Delhomme should be getting the ball out quickly nonetheless.
Witherspoon and Tinoisamoa are active; Chillar is eager to get upfield, but can be suckered. Witherspoon had a tendency to get sucked into misdirection with Carolina, and weakside counters will probably be effective. All three are easily blockable, and once the zone blocking can get some movement on the front, the second level will be taken on quickly. Should the Rams bring a safety up, expect to see Carolina spread a bit more.
Carolina ran for 5.6 per carry last year against the Rams, including 114 for Deangelo Williams and a brisk 63 by Deshaun Foster on only 9 carries. Brad Hoover and Nick Goings even split 11 carries, getting 34 yards apiece. The key to continuing the push - run early and often, and with lead plays. Getting Hoover into the line on zone leads to clear paths will open up seams in the middle, and the Rams will only become more susceptible to counter plays and misdirection as the run starts rolling. Glover, specifically, has had a knock against him for wearing down against the run late in games, and getting Claude Wroten onto the field is a positive for Carolina. James Hall, as well, has been noted for losing contain, and Little is small and penetrates quickly, leaving a potential lane off left tackle at all times.
Holding the ball right will be huge for the running game - Carolina had 4 fumbles last year against the Rams.
Carolina's also expected to open things up a little - Steve Smith was promised being moved around a lot, but only saw a little in preseason. Whether the team pushes Tye Hill on Smith all game, or stays with a zone concept, it should be hard to double Smith and should it happen, look for the team to move him around more and add other split options, unbalanced looks including 2 TEs opposite twins, and so on. Expect to see Smith underneath a lot early if there's a lot of doubling; expect pump fakes to that side and crossing routes underneath Smith.
Hill, Ron Bartell, and backup Lenny Walls each have pro athleticism, speed, and size (Walls' 6'4, especially), but none of them play the ball well. The Rams only picked 8 passes last year, but contested 221. The Rams don't close out on passes, but get close; forcing the ball may have its moments. Hill has a knock, specifically, about not getting hands on the ball. Of the group, Jonathan Wade is the fastest, and most likely to step in front of a ball, but also gambles and is too green.
Bartell is more likely to face Keary Colbert in matchups; to this point, it's still unlikely we know what to see out of Colbert, but Bartell is pedestrian. Secondary targets like Jeff King and Dante Rosario can exploit the lack of height of the Rams LBs, and the backs will take advantage of that as well. Goings and Williams each made plays v/s the Rams second level last year in the passing game. Early pass penetration will see a fair dose of Little/Glover facing screens.
Safeties OJ Atogwe and Corey Chavous are solid safeties that need to be respected. Neither are Pro Bowl caliber players, but they're meeting their potential moreso than the players in front of them. Spreading formation can take reads away from the deep men, and running the ball as well as last year will ultimately force one safety in the box. This unit overall is very young, save for Chavous.
The Rams, overall, didn't do anything that should aid their run problems last year. They added to their pass defense, but only by trading for the often-injured end Hill. If Carolina's offense sticks to fundamentals and blocks well, everything else should be taken care of. Stressing short third down conversions and wearing down that small Rams front should be a key, and shouldn't be hard. Supplement the run with quick hit passes, and control the ball.