National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: Week 7

+ There have been times this season when Mike Shula has held his own offense hostage by scrapping designed runs that highlight Cam Newton’s strengths as an athlete. Shula inexplicably kept Newton in the pocket during a Week 5 loss to the Cardinals and the results were predictable, as Newton threw three interceptions and generally got worse as the game wore on. That said, when Shula has allowed Newton to get into the rhythm and flow of the game by installing some designed runs, the Panthers’ offense has flourished. Last week, Newton completed 20-of-26 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns while also adding nine rushes for 30 yards and a score. It’s no coincidence that Newton’s best performance of the season came when his offensive coordinator took off the handcuffs.

+ The Panthers utilized a lot of “11” personnel last week to keep the Vikings on their heels. They’ll motion running back DeAngelo Williams out of the backfield in efforts to spread defenses wide and combat the blitz, and they’ll also move Greg Olson around in different formations. (Last week they lined him up in the slot, in-line and even in the backfield.) Once they’ve established the run, they’ll mix in read options and play fakes in order to suck the linebackers up and complete passes in between the hashes. Deception is key to their offense, which puts a lot of pressure on the Rams’ linebacker corps this week.

+ It’ll be a challenge, but the Rams need to do their best to make the Panthers one-dimensional offensively.  They’ve struggled against the run this season, including last week when they allowed Arian Foster to gain 7.1 yards per carry on the ground. Houston foolishly got away from the run in the second quarter, but the Rams won’t be as fortunate this week vs. Carolina. Everything starts with the run for the Panthers, and once those linebackers and safeties start to cheat up, Newton will test opponents vertically.

+ Alec Ogletree’s pick-six last week was a combination of film study, instincts and pure athleticism. The Rams must have seen something on film that suggested Houston wanted to get the ball to Garrett Graham inside the 10-yard line. That’s why they had Ogletree underneath and a safety over the top. Once T.J. Yates stared down Graham in his drop back, Ogletree stepped in front of the tight end and took it back to the house. The Rams face a dilemma this week. If they choose to spy Newton with Ogletree, that takes him out of coverage, which is an area he’s excelled in this season. The same goes for James Laurinaitis, who increasingly looks more and more comfortable in Jeff Fisher’s defense. No matter how they scheme Carolina, the Rams’ linebackers will need to be disciplined when it comes to their reads. If they get sucked too far in or can’t get off blocks, they’ll create running lanes for Newton and Williams, which will be disastrous. The Rams also need Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford to be disciplined so that they’re not leaving Carolina’s guards free to get to the second level and block the linebackers. This is going to be an interesting test for the Rams’ front seven.

+ Speaking of Brockers, he was outstanding last Sunday vs. the Texans. Both of his QB takedowns could have been considered coverage sacks, but his ability to shoot gaps and get off blocks was on display in Houston. If the Rams are going to find success this weekend vs. the Panthers, he’ll need to be a big part of what the team does defensively.

+ The Rams are slowly finding an identity on offense. With Daryl Richardson as their starter, they couldn’t run effectively between the tackles, and that forced Sam Bradford into way too many third-and-long situations. But with Zac Stacy rushing for 5.6 and 4.4 yards per carry, respectively, over the past two weeks, their offense has found more success. Stacy’s ability to run between the tackles has allowed the Rams to face more second- or third-and-manageable down-and-distances. Their ability to run the ball also gives the opposition’s linebackers and safeties something to think about outside of blanketing the Rams’ receivers.

+ That said, the Rams face a Panther defense that currently ranks No. 1 in yards allowed and is fourth in run defense. The addition of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has already paid dividends, as he’s been the team’s best run defender not named Luke Kuechly. And as far as Kuechly is concerned, he’s building off of his impressive rookie campaign by being a sideline-to-sideline force in the middle of Carolina’s defense. He’s already emerged as a linebacker who opposing quarterbacks have to know where he is at all times because when he’s not dropping back into coverage, he’s constantly playing on the opponent’s side of the field. He has the quickness to sift through traffic and cover running backs and tight ends in coverage, as well as the strength to shed blocks and get down hill in a hurry. He’s the complete package, and with all due respect to guys like Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, he’ll be the best inside linebacker the Rams face all season.

+ Greg Hardy is another Panther to keep an eye on this Sunday. He doesn’t have the star power  of Mario Williams, Jason Pierre-Paul or even teammate Charles Johnson, but he’s outperformed all three of those defensive ends this season. In five games this season he’s racked up 13 quarterback hurries, three sacks and seven QB hits. He dropped to the sixth round of the 2010 draft due to a bad forty time, weight gain, a questionable attitude and injuries. But he’s proving that he has first-round talent, and he’s in store for a big pay day soon if he can continue to harass opposing quarterbacks.

+ Chris Givens, Jared Cook and Tavon Austin were hyped all offseason as the players who will have the biggest impact for the Rams’ offense. But over the past two weeks it’s been less-heralded performers like Stacy, Lance Kendricks and Austin Pettis that have stepped up. How the Rams win doesn’t matter as much as the victory itself. But at some point this team will need its playmakers to emerge, and it’s up to Brian Schottenheimer to figure out how to create mismatches for Cook and Austin. Watching how Sean Payton gets Darren Sproles in open space and moving forward after the catch is impressive, as was Bill Musgrave’s ability to create mismatches for Percy Harvin when the receiver was still in Minnesota. Thus far, Schottenheimer hasn’t created the same opportunities for Austin or Cook, who have both been a disappointment thus far. I’m certainly not suggesting that the Rams force anything, but there’s a reason why Cook landed a $35 million contract on the first day of free agency and why the team traded into the top 10 for Austin. These two players have specific skill sets that should be highlighted and exploited on a weekly basis. Again, winning is the only thing that matters in the NFL. But at some point the Rams will need to have their playmakers emerge. Part of the blame rests on Schottenheimer, but he can’t catch or create separation for Cook, Austin and Givens. Something has to give, because Kendricks and Pettis aren’t going to beat teams on a weekly basis.