Three things: Rams-Panthers

ST. LOUIS -- Three things to watch in Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers.

1. Rolling in the red zone

Since Week 14 of last season, the Rams rank first -- yes, first -- in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage, converting 71.4 percent of their chances into touchdowns. This season, they’ve been particularly effective, scoring 12 touchdowns in 18 trips inside their opponent’s 20, good for third in the league.

While the Rams have yet to score a rushing touchdown in the red zone or at all, they’ve found success close to the goal line in no small part because they’ve had success running inside the 20, especially the past two weeks.

Against Houston last week, running back Zac Stacy's ability to gain positive yards set up easy play-action touchdown tosses to tight ends Cory Harkey and Lance Kendricks.

“I think one of the things that has helped the red zone production has been our ability to run the football,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “A number of these opportunities that we’ve taken advantage of have been off of play-action, and so we establish the run and now you force the defense to be balanced.”

Finishing drives might be a bit tougher against Carolina, however. The stingy Panthers defense tightens up even more when opponents get inside the 20. They’re allowing touchdowns on 36.4 percent of drives inside their 20, good for fourth in the NFL.

Something will have to give this week.

2. Run defense solutions

No matter the style of rushing attack the Rams have faced this year -- be it power schemes like San Francisco or zone-oriented ones like Houston -- they have been unable to consistently stop the run from week to week.

The St. Louis defense insists the issues causing the run defense woes can be corrected through relatively simple means. Commonly cited problems include missed gap assignments, getting off blocks and struggles with play identification.

Against the Panthers, the Rams will face perhaps the most complicated rushing attack they’ve seen this season. Carolina has the personnel to be multiple in the run game, deploying the slashing style of back DeAngelo Williams, the power of Mike Tolbert and the combination of the two of quarterback Cam Newton.

“They do a lot of stuff, and like I said they’re going to give us a lot of looks, different formations and all types of different runs and that’s runs that aren’t including the quarterback runs,” defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “Then, you add that package on top of it. It makes it a good group running the football.”

The Rams have struggled to stop the run when they know what’s coming, things only figure to be more difficult when the opponent can keep them off balance.

3. More on turnover margin

It’s pretty easy to use turnover margin as a key to watch in every game and with good reason. But it’s become something of a panacea for the Rams in the past two weeks.

Against Houston and Jacksonville, the Rams were plus-seven in turnover margin with zero giveaways. It didn’t hurt that the Rams scored three touchdowns out of those takeaways. The result was two comfortable victories.

The Rams have won their past seven games when they’ve had a positive turnover margin. They’re winless (0-8-1) in their past nine games when they’ve had a negative turnover differential.

In Carolina, the Rams get an opponent who is in the middle of the pack in terms of turnover margin with 11 takeaways and nine giveaways.

“They’re not turning the ball over very much,” Fisher said. “They’re getting turnovers. They’ve got 11 interceptions. I think they lead the league in interceptions, so if we protect it and get it back, we’ll have a chance.”

It probably goes without saying but if the Rams struggle to take care of No. 2 on this list, they’ll need to once again find a way to dominate this area to steal a second consecutive road victory.