Rams-Panthers: Matchup breakdown

ST. LOUIS -- A look at three matchups to keep an eye on when the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers meet on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

Rams running back Zac Stacy vs. Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly

Stacy has given the Rams a much-needed boost in the run game since becoming the starter two weeks ago, but he has yet to face a run defense the caliber of what he’ll see in the Panthers on Sunday.

Carolina’s fourth-ranked run defense starts with big defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, but it’s Kuechly who is the heart and soul of the entire unit.

“He was defensive rookie of the year for a reason last year,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s an outstanding player. He’s very good in coverage; he was productive around the ball. He had picks, some sacks and he’s a very good run defender.”

Kuechly is off to another strong start in his second season, posting 45 tackles and two interceptions through five games.

Stacy has averaged 4.9 yards per carry the past two weeks against struggling run defenses in Jacksonville and Houston, with much of that damage coming on yards after contact.

The Rams' offense has enjoyed more success and been more efficient since Stacy took over. For the offense to move the ball against Carolina’s defense, it’ll need Stacy to at least move the chains and keep the Panthers honest.

Rams tackles Jake Long and Joe Barksdale vs. Carolina ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson

They may not be household names but Hardy and Johnson form one of the league’s best, if not most underrated, pass rushing duos. The Panthers are 10th in the league in percentage of sacks per pass attempt, dropping opposing quarterbacks on 8.8 percent of their dropbacks.

Hardy (three) and Johnson (three) are leading the charge with their speed and ability to bend the edge.

Rams tackles Jake Long and Joe Barksdale have rebounded from tough outings against San Francisco and Dallas with strong performances the past two weeks as the Rams have enjoyed some semblance of continuity on the line.

“I think this might be one of the best D lines we’ve faced all year,” Long said. “They’re relentless and those two guys off the edge they come hard, and I think they’re in the top five in defensive stats. It’s going to be a huge challenge.”

The Rams effectively used combination blocks and double teams on Houston’s J.J. Watt last week. They’ll be able to do some of that against Hardy or Johnson, but it’s unlikely they can do both all the time.

That means it’s up to Long and/or Barksdale to win one-on-one matchups when presented with the opportunity.

Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins vs. Carolina receiver Steve Smith

As a general rule, the Rams don’t shadow receivers with a single corner, dictating matchups based on which side of the field the receiver lines up on.

So it’s likely there will be plenty of times where Jenkins and Smith aren’t matched up. When they are, though, it should be a lot of fun to watch.

The feisty and competitive Jenkins has made strides each week this year and picked up his first interception of the season last week.

After matchups against bigger, physical wideouts such as Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Dallas’ Dez Bryant and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Smith presents a much different look.

Like Jenkins himself, Smith plays with a tough, competitive streak that makes him a tough cover once again.

“He’s not playing like an old man right now,” Fisher said. “He wants the ball and he can get behind you and he’s still blocking like he always has. He’s fun to watch on tape. He’s really quite a competitor.”