Scouting report: Panthers need to avoid Aaron Donald’s pressure — and create some

A scouting report on the Carolina Panthers and the Los Angeles Rams, who meet Sunday at Bank of America Stadium to open their 2019 seasons:

When the Panthers pass the ball ...

They need to spread it around. The Rams feature a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, although neither had his best season in 2018. Each is still capable of hurting an offense, and the Rams recorded the third-most interceptions in the league last season. Between Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, DJ Moore and Greg Olsen, Cam Newton has a stable of pass-catchers unlike any he has had in his career before. If he doesn’t take advantage of the variety of skill around him and starts forcing balls, it could lead to game-losing turnovers. Oh, and he’ll have to do all that with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald draped all over him.

Advantage: Push

When the Panthers run the ball ...

Donald is going to get penetration, even against Carolina’s reworked offensive line. The trick is making sure, as offensive coordinator Norv Turner said this week, that those negative plays don’t become disastrous. McCaffrey proved last season that he’s capable of running between the tackles, and with all the weapons Newton has at his disposal, the Rams won’t be able to stack the box against Carolina. Despite all the takeaways the Los Angeles defense is capable of earning, they did allow 122.3 rushing yards per game last season.

Advantage: Panthers

When the Rams pass the ball ...

This is perhaps the most imbalanced matchup of the game. Rams quarterback Jared Goff was rewarded for his play last year with a hefty extension, but it’s a little easier to put up those stats when you’re throwing to Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. James Bradberry has yet to prove he has elite-level ball skills, and it’s worth monitoring how second-year cornerback Donte Jackson has improved his technique. But the secondary is still a weak spot for Carolina, and the Rams were the NFL’s second-highest scoring offense in 2018 for a reason.

Advantage: Rams

When the Rams run the ball ...

There’s a chance, with the addition of defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, that this Panthers front seven again plays like one of the NFL’s best. But last season, it certainly was not. McCoy, Kawann Short and Dontari Poe have a chance to become a formidable threesome, at some point, and having Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson to clean up the garbage behind them will help — but not this week. Los Angeles running back Todd Gurley is one of the NFL’s best, rushing for more than 1,100 yards in three of his four seasons, including 1,251 and a career-best 17 touchdowns last year. Carolina’s run defense struggled at times in the preseason as the team continues learning new 3-4 schemes.

Advantage: Rams

Special teams

Not to damper the excitement around Joey Slye, who will kick in his first regular-season game Sunday, but this one is not particularly close. Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, and in just 11 games last season, he made 27 field goals. By comparison, Graham Gano played 12 games for Carolina in 2018 and only made 14. Also, Rams punter Johnny Hekker has been named a First-Team All-Pro four times, including from 2015-2017.

Advantage: Rams


Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week how much he looks forward to the upcoming chess match against Rams coach and offensive guru Sean McVay, who took his team to the Super Bowl in just his second season. McVay has an innovative mind for offensive-play design and calling, but he’s not invincible, as the New England Patriots proved in the Super Bowl. Rivera has two AP Coach of the Year awards in his own right, but with a defensive slant. These two guys are about as different as they come, but how they adjust to one another will be fun for any NFL fan to watch. McVay gets the slight edge for recency bias.

Advantage: Rams


The line on this game keeps dropping and for good reason — would anyone genuinely be that surprised if Carolina wins? That said, it’s hard to ignore what the Rams accomplished offensively last year. Getting pressure on Goff from the interior is the best way for Carolina to get the Rams’ offense off track, but McVay is pretty good about getting his team back on the rails. Meanwhile, the Panthers’ starting offense didn’t look quite right in limited preseason action against the Patriots two weeks ago. Cam Newton and Co. will score some points in this one, but stopping that Rams passing attack will prove to be too tough a task.

Rams 34, Panthers 24

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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