EARTH CITY, Mo. – The St. Louis Rams have seen a little bit of everything this season when it comes to opposing rushing attacks.
They’ve seen pure power against Frank Gore and San Francisco and zone-heavy stretch runs against Arian Foster and Houston. This week, the Panthers provided a unique challenge. They are the rare team capable of doing a little bit of everything and mix in the added X factor of quarterback Cam Newton.
“It starts with the quarterback, but they do a lot of unique things offensively,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’s a very, I don’t want to say unconventional offense, but it’s different from the standpoint they’ll line up and run lead and power and things at you and then next thing you know, they’ve got everybody spread out and they’re running the read-option. And he’s either running it or handing it off or throwing it down the field, and he handles that aspect of the offense very well.”
For a Rams defense struggling mightily against the run this season -- they rank 30th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game at 130.50 -- the Panthers’ ability to change looks and create confusion doesn’t seem to be a tonic for the Rams’ woes against the run.
As Fisher pointed out, it all starts with Newton. Carolina doesn’t deploy Newton as a runner as much as they once did but in some sense that makes him more dangerous because it creates an element of surprise. Through five games, Newton has 29 carries for 153 yards with two touchdowns.
Newton had a season-high nine carries last week against Minnesota, gaining 30 yards and doesn’t have a carry for more than 15 yards. The Rams have done well against running quarterbacks in recent games but Newton is a different task because of his combination of size and speed.
“Well, he’s hard to get down one-on-one,” Fisher said. “That’s the problem with him. He’s a big, explosive runner. He’s got great speed and he’ll run away from you. So, when he extends the play in passing situations, you’re in coverage downfield, so he picks up chunks of yards, and then they have deliberate runs that they call for him where the huddle call makes him a runner so he picks up an extra blocker. You have an extra player on offense.”
That extra player can often be another of Carolina’s running backs, usually Mike Tolbert. Tolbert is a sort of hybrid fullback/halfback and the Panthers deploy him in short yardage with the ball and as a lead blocker for Newton.
Of course, it’s DeAngelo Williams who figures most prominent in Carolina’s run game. Williams has a slashing style not unlike Dallas’ DeMarco Murray, who shredded the Rams for 175 yards in a Week 3 meeting.
Williams leads the Panthers with 394 yards in five games. With Newton and Tolbert providing the power, it makes Williams all the more dangerous.
“That gives them another threat when you have DeAngelo, who’s a guy that can get on the edges and get on the perimeter and that gives you different run games you have to worry about,” defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “And then throw in the quarterback mix in there, too. You have to be really disciplined in all the stuff that you do to account for all the various type of runs that you’ll get.”
The Rams have struggled to handle assignments, maintain gap control, get off blocks and consistently tackle, all issues that have contributed to their problems controlling the run. Those problems presented themselves even when the Rams knew what to expect.
Don’t be surprised if the Panthers look to run early and often with their multi-faceted rushing attack.