Can the Rams defense contain the Carolina Panthers? 

There’s so much to discuss about the opener at Carolina and the season ahead, we’re going to break this into two parts.

Later this week, some perspective on Sean McVay and what’s ahead for the offense.

But first, let’s dive into defense and special teams.

Can this Defense Dominate?

The Rams 2018 defense was clutch; it was opportunistic; quite frankly, it was championship-worthy. After all, the defense delivered an NFC title and its best performance of the year came in the Super Bowl.

Relative to expectations, however, it’s also fair to say the defense underachieved.

The 2018 Rams were average statistically. And that was despite an historic season from the two-time reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

What if they delivered on their promise now? What if – in conjunction with one of the top scoring offenses in football – the Rams defense imposed its collective will on the opposition?

Aaron Donald believes they can.

“Hundred percent,” he told me recently. “I feel like we’re in a position to be even better.”

The Los Angeles Rams practice ahead of the team's week one matchup against the Carolina Panthers.

Face of the Franchise Tag

For that to be the case, you get the sense Dante Fowler and Marcus Peters have to have extension-worthy seasons. Both are former first-round talents, entering their fifth seasons, playing positions that command massive contracts, and the Rams traded draft capital to acquire their services.

It would be a wonderful financial dilemma for L.A. to contend with in 2020, if Fowler and Peters are each coming off career years as they approach the open market. There’s reason to think that could happen.

Peters improved dramatically as 2018 wore on, as he did not allow a score after that first trip to New Orleans in Week 9, and per PFF, didn’t even surrender a deep completion in the second half of last season.

Once Fowler settled into Los Angeles, he made some of the biggest plays of the Super Bowl run, including a thunderous tackle of Ezekiel Elliott and the overtime hit on Drew Brees.

Wanted: Veteran Help

Sunday will be our first look at a revamped Rams defense, featuring two players with a dozen Pro Bowl honors between them. Yet the teams that knew them best, didn’t want them anymore.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Sean McVay saw Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews in person last season (Weddle for two joint sessions with the Ravens; Matthews in Week 8 with the Packers). He and L.A. did want these veterans, believing strongly that there’s something left in their tanks – and a wealth of knowledge between their ears – that can benefit the 2019 Rams.

Check out photos of members of the Rams 2019 53-man roster.

Last Hurrah?

The Rams can only hope that Weddle and Matthews have the impact that Andrew Whitworth and Aqib Talib have had.

I know this is supposed to be a defensive piece, but allow me to lump Whitworth in with Weddle, Matthews, and Talib here, only for the purposes of this brief observation.

Isn’t it remarkable how what was, until very recently, the youngest roster in the NFL suddenly got a bit long in the tooth?

Four starters 33 years or older. That’s like… Sean McVay old.

Wishing them all a healthy and fulfilling season, one that cements their legacy, particularly if it proves to be their last.

(Meantime, there are 10 rookies on the roster, including three undrafted college free agents.)

Safety in Numbers

There are few things I’m more intrigued by than the Week One snap counts at safety.

The Rams opted to keep five of them on the initial 53-man roster, and four should feature prominently in the defensive game plan against Carolina: Weddle, John Johnson, Marqui Christian, and Taylor Rapp.

“We’ve got guys that can play in the box; guys that can play in the deep part of the field; guys that can cover man-to-man,” safeties coach Ejiro Evero told me during training camp. “It really just gives you a lot of flexibility as a defense in terms of disguising and giving different looks to the offense that can keep them off balance.”

Imagine what Donald might do with that moment of hesitation while an opposing quarterback sorts through the confusion.

“That’s exactly right,” Evero continued. “And that’s all we’re trying to do: just buy him a split more second.”

When middle linebacker Micah Kiser was injured in the preseason, the importance of the Rams depth, intelligence, and versatility at safety was amplified. Sure, they’ll still need a thumping linebacker on run downs and in short-yardage situations. But I suspect more often than not, Wade Phillips and his defensive staff will opt to leverage their safeties against Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, and the Panthers.

Something Special

We have to be intentional not to take the Rams special teams for granted; I know I’m guilty of it at times.

And this may feel like an odd moment to express any kind of concern about the kicking game, given that Greg Zuerlein hit the longest game-winner in playoff history earlier this calendar year.

But he also missed from 48 in the Super Bowl, and I’m sensitive to the fact that since his All-Pro 2017, he’s missed seven of the team’s last 18 regular season games due to injury.

Additionally, after going 18-of-19 on kicks beyond 40 yards in 2017, Zuerlein was just 8-of-12 from that distance in 2018.

There’s comfort in knowing that Zuerlein and the Rams were so confident about his health they allowed him to fly to Hawaii and back, not to mention attempt field goals of 56 and 58 yards (both missed) this preseason.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Nothing against Sam Ficken and Cairo Santos, but it would be a welcome relief to have Greg the Leg dialed in for 16-plus games this season. As if to drive that point home, the Panthers put their kicker, Graham Gano on injured reserve last week.

The Forgotten Man

I’ve been keeping score this off-season while reading, watching, and listening to coverage of the team.

I think Michael Brockers has been completely forgotten.

Not by his teammates. Not by his coaches. And certainly not by his front office, which chose not to repurpose his eight-figure salary cap hit. But externally, Brockers has been the least-mentioned starter on defense – and perhaps the entire team – for the past seven months.

One sack and four tackles-for-loss made for an underwhelming 2018, as Brockers often was tasked with holding the front side of a leaky Rams rush defense. His PFF grade declined significantly from 2016 and 2017 levels.

That being said, I wanted to finish with some ink for the first pick of the Les Snead era, who has quietly done the dirty work for seven years in Horns, averaging more than 15 appearances per season along the way.

Here’s one prediction for Brockers to have a 2019 worth talking about.

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