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Keys to victory: 5 things the Rams need to do to beat the Panthers and get back on track

5 keys to victory for the Rams against the Carolina Panthers

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams are literally limping into their bye week. Sitting at 2-3 with a matchup against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, the Rams are at a turning point. This game against the Panthers isn’t a must-win game. It’s a must-not-lose game. The Rams simply can’t afford to drop to 2-4.

The Panthers have dealt with their own drama this week. They fired Matt Rhule on Monday, promoting Steve Wilks. Rhule is the fifth head coach in last four seasons to be fired before the team’s sixth gam. According to ESPN Stats and Info., the previous four teams won their next game.

In two games against Wilks with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, Sean McVay led the Rams to victories of 31-0 and 34-9. They need a convincing victory more than ever on Sunday. Here are five things that the Rams need to do to get back on track.

1. Keep Carolina in Third-and-Long

The Panthers offense has been one of the worst in the NFL this season. That’s especially the case in third-and-long situations. On 3rd-and-7+, the Panthers rank 30th in the NFL, converting just 12.5 percent of the time (disregard the Rams sitting at 31).

Without Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, the Panthers will likely be starting former Temple quarterback PJ Walker. The Panthers rank last in converting third downs as is at a clip of 24.19 percent. However, in 3rd-and-7+, that number is almost cut in half.

With an inexperienced quarterback in Walker, if the Rams defense can keep the Panthers offense in those difficult third-and-long situations, they’ll be in good shape. They need to keep Walker in likely pass situation. Over the last three weeks, the Rams defense ranks 14th on third down, allowing a conversion just 35.56% of the time.

2. Communicate on the offensive line

The Rams offensive line hasn’t been very good to start 2022 to say the least. However, they aren’t necessarily always getting outmatched physically. Much of the Rams’ 25.2 percent pressure rate has been because of miscommunication up-front and not knowing who is supposed to be blocking which pass rusher. They’ve been dominated by interior stunts and twists.

This is where the Rams miss Brian Allen and Coleman Shelton the most. While Jeremiah Kolone is a good fill-in for a game if needed. He’s not someone you want starting for several games. The Rams learned this the hard way last week against the the Dallas Cowboys.

The Rams activated Matt Skura from the practice squad earlier this week. It will be interesting to see if the Rams go with him against the Panthers. Wilks is a very good defensive coach. While the Panthers rank 31st in DVOA on offense, they’re 17th on defense according to Football Outsiders.

Last week, the Panthers did a nice job of getting to Jimmy Garoppolo, primarily by sending pressure through the A-gap. Coincidentally, this is where the Rams offensive line is at its weakest right now.

The Panthers will get creative with their pressures and the Rams need to be able to communicate where that pressure is coming from. Brian Burns ranks fourth in the NFL in pressures with 24. On the defensive line Matt Ionnidas ranks 11th among defensive linemen. This Panthers defense has talent and guys that can play.

3. Use Darrell Henderson in the Run Game

Last week, the Rams’ run game was far too predictable. On Cam Akers’ 20 snaps, 14 of them were run plays. Meanwhile, on Darrell Henderson 37 snaps, 35 of them were passing plays. The Rams must get better when it comes to rotating their running backs. With the ineffectiveness of Akers, the Rams need to lean more on Henderson in the run game and get him in a rhythm.

In Week 5, Jeff Wilson had 17 carries for 120 yards for 7.1 yards per carry. The week before, Eno Benjamin had five carries for 36 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. The Panthers run defense isn’t bad, but teams have been able to find room. Over the last two weeks, the Panthers defense ranks just 23rd in run defense success rate.

The Rams have found little success in the run game this season. There’s not a lot to think that will change this week even if the matchup is more favorable. However, it’s the key to getting the offense back on track.

As The Athletic’s Nick Baumgardner writes,

The Rams are facing the same problem every Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator who worked with Stafford faced at one point or another: If you can’t run the ball, no defense will ever come out of a two-deep shell. They’ll sit in it and fire-zone Stafford into the ground. Stafford is throwing the ball well enough, but he has to be better protected up front and by the run game.

Defenses are giving the Rams a lot of two-high looks, but because they aren’t running the ball effectively, teams haven’t been forced to come out of those two-high looks. It’s worth noting that last week’s 54-yard reception to TuTu Atwell came with the Cowboys playing Cover-3 with one deep safety. The Rams need more of those looks to create their explosives. That starts with a run game that defenses have to respect.

This season, Henderson has been the better running back and it’s overdue for the Rams to start leaning on him a little more. Henderson is averaging over a full yard per carry more than Akers and is nearly three-times more effective in EPA per rush. Henderson doesn’t need to be the bell-cow, but at the very least he should be used to add some variety in the run game.

4. Find a Second Option in the Passing Game

I feel like I’ve said this for a couple of weeks now, but it’s even more so the case this week. Jaycee Horn is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. His seven receptions allowed are the fewest among cornerbacks to play at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps.

It will be interesting to see what the Panthers do with Horn this week. In three games last season, Horn played 28 snaps from the slot and didn’t allow a single catch on two targets. In five games this season, he’s played 34 snaps in the slot.

Cooper Kupp lives in the slot and the Panthers will likely try to take Kupp away. Their best chance at doing that is lining up Horn across from him. Horn will likely move inside and outside and spend some time on Allen Robinson, but it will be interesting to see how much he plays in the slot across from Kupp.

If this is the case, the Rams need to find a second option in the passing game. It will be necessary for Robinson to take advantage of his matchups when Horn is on Kupp.

Horn is coming into the game questionable, but according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, he is expected to play. Over the last two weeks, the Panthers rank 27th in dropback EPA per play. Stafford needs to be able to rely on someone outside of Kupp.

5. Avoid the Back-Breaking Mistake

Over the last two weeks, the Rams have made mistakes that they simply couldn’t recover from. Against the San Francisco 49ers, it was a pick-6 in a one-score game in the fourth quarter that led to an eventual loss.

Last week against the Cowboys, a Stafford fumble led to a scoop-and-score and then a blocked punt on the next possession essentially spotted Dallas nine points. The Rams took the lead to go-ahead 10-9, but that easily could have been 10-0.

It goes further than the turnovers. After starting on the Cowboys 29-yard line, a holding penalty on Ben Skowronek brought a six-yard run by Henderson back. This turned 2nd-and-4 into 2nd-and-20 and eventually 3rd-and-19. The Rams got zero points.

Against the 49ers, the Rams have 1st-and-10 in the red zone at the 19-yard line. A false start by Joe Noteboom set them back and the Rams were immediately playing from behind the sticks and forced to kick a field goal.

When the offense is performing the way that it is, these are the mistake that they can’t afford. These are mistakes that end drives. Playing against a desperate team like the Panthers who will have new life under a new head coach, these types of mistakes can’t happen.