HOW THEY MATCH UP
Rams (13-3 in 2018) at Carolina (7-9)
When Rams have the ball
Coach Sean McVay orchestrated one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses the last two seasons. Quarterback Jared Goff is a two-time Pro Bowl player who has progressed every year. The offense, however, has some question marks. Is running back Todd Gurley’s left knee physically sound? Gurley said last week that he was “fine.” Can wide receiver Cooper Kupp recapture his form after season-ending knee surgery in 2018? Kupp has at times looked more confident than before he suffered the injury. Can center Brian Allen and guard Joe Noteboom fill the voids left by the departures of John Sullivan and Rodger Saffold, respectively? No one knows, or even got a hint, because McVay once again held out starters from preseason games. That did not hurt the Rams in the 2018 opener against the Oakland Raiders and it is not expected to slow them against the Panthers, who have switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under veteran coach Ron Rivera. The Rams caught a break when new Panthers linebacker Bruce Irvin suffered a hamstring injury that will keep him sidelined for the opener, but the Panthers still feature lineman Gerald McCoy and rookie edge rusher Brian Burns among others. Luke Kuechly is among the NFL’s top linebackers.
When Panthers have the ball
Quarterback Cam Newton had offseason shoulder surgery and suffered a foot injury during a preseason game. But the 2015 NFL most valuable player will start against the Rams. Newton remains one of the most dynamic dual-purpose threats. And at 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, Newton is difficult to bring down. But Rams tackle Aaron Donald sacked him twice during a 2016, 13-10 loss to the Panthers. On one, tackle Michael Brockers recalled that Donald was “climbing the ladder” to sack Newton. “I remember that picture,” Brockers said. “That was the dopest picture I’ve seen.” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has experience formulating a plan to control Newton. See Super Bowl 50, when the Denver Broncos shut him down. The Rams also must contain running back Christian McCaffrey as a runner and receiver. The Newton-McCaffrey combination will test a remade Rams defense, especially new nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, inside linebackers Cory Littleton and Bryce Hager and edge rushers Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews. Safety Eric Weddle will call defensive signals and make adjustments before the snap. The Rams secondary will try to neutralize receiver DJ Moore and tight end Greg Olsen.
When they kick
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, punter-holder Johnny Hekker and snapper Jake McQuaide have been together since the 2012 season. JoJo Natson will return kicks. Longtime Panthers kicker Graham Gano was placed on injured reserve because of leg issues, so Joey Slye will make his debut. Slye made seven of eight field-goal attempts during the preseason, three from 50 yards or beyond. Michael Palardy is the punter, and Ray-Ray McCloud returns kicks.
Gary Klein’s prediction
McVay’s decision to once again hold out starters from preseason games wraps the offense and defense in an air of mystery. And all eyes will be on Gurley. There might be some early missteps, but the Rams will show that talk of a post-Super Bowl letdown was unwarranted. At least for the opener.
RAMS 30, CAROLINA 27