St. Louis Rams (4-5) at Carolina Panthers (5-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 16th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead 8-7. Except for a 2003 meeting in the playoffs won by Carolina, this is only the second time the teams have met since 2001, the last year they were in the same division. The Panthers won in Carolina in 2004, 20-7.
2006 RANKINGS: Rams: offense 8th (21st rush, 4th pass); defense 23rd (29th rush, 10th pass). Panthers: offense 23rd (28th rush, 16th pass); defense 17th (16th rush, 13th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Rams don't want to lose their aggressive approach offensively, but they still have to be concerned about the Panthers exploiting LT Adam Goldberg making his first start in place of injured Orlando Pace. Expect the Rams to lean more on RB Steven Jackson in the early going to get Goldberg into the flow of the game and hopefully take some of the sting out of the Panthers' pass rush -- especially now that it will be difficult to provide RT Alex Barron help against DE Julius Peppers. The Panthers' offense is still seeking to put together four quarters of solid football. The unit has been very inconsistent, which can be dangerous against a Rams team that is plus-eight in turnover margin and capable of putting up points in a hurry.
Rams: Are 39-1 since 1995 when having a 100-yard rusher. ... Bulger has thrown just two interceptions in 330 pass attempts -- both against Seattle. Panthers: Peppers has 14.0 sacks in his past 10 games. ... WR Keyshawn Johnson needs 13 receptions to reach 800 for his career.
--DE Leonard Little has 70.0 career sacks and is just 2.5 behind the club's all-time leader, LB/DE Kevin Greene. Little has 9.0 sacks this season.
--WR Torry Holt continues to enter some rarified air as an NFL receiver. Currently with 10,184 yards, Holt needs just 90 yards to pass Jerry Rice (10,273) for the most receiving yards in a player's first eight seasons.
--FS Oshiomogho Atogwe was named the defensive player of the game for the last Sunday's performance against Seattle. Atogwe had six tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles. Those forced fumbles, one of which was recovered by the Rams, were the first of his career.
--CB Ron Bartell could see time in the nickel defense this week because of the injury to CB Travis Fisher.
--C Justin Hartwig (groin) was downgraded to out for this week's game.
--DT Jordan Carstens' season is now officially over after he was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list because of a blood clot in his left lung. Carstens was on medication for a kidney problem, and the clotting may have been associated with the medicine he'd been taking for that issue.
--Could this be the week the Panthers turn to RB DeAngelo Williams to carry the bulk of the load? Carolina isn't getting much out of DeShaun Foster, who is averaging 3.8 yards per carry. The move might make sense since the Rams are giving up 143.3 yards per game on the ground this year and have struggled with speedy running backs.
--DE Mike Rucker and the Panthers have forced seven turnovers in each of their last two games against the Rams at Bank of America Stadium. Those games were played in 2004 and 2000.
--WR Keyshawn Johnson had a fumble in Monday night's win over Tampa Bay, but he made up for that with a touchdown catch over the middle.
--WR Steve Smith is averaging 111.4 receiving yards per game this season.
--CB Ken Lucas was held out of practice Thursday because of a thigh injury and was downgraded to questionable. This is a new injury. He had been listed as probable with a groin injury.
--CB Richard Marshall would start if CB Ken Lucas (thigh) can't play.
--CB Dion Byrum was added to the roster Thursday. An undrafted rookie, he was signed off the Tampa Bay practice squad.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Rams' run defense that has been the subject of scrutiny for several weeks. But Sunday against the Panthers, the pass defense will be facing a difficult assignment, matching up against Carolina wide receivers Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson.
Compounding the problem is that starting cornerback Travis Fisher is lost for the season with a broken forearm, meaning that rookie Tye Hill will be thrust into the starting lineup. Hill did start two games earlier this season when Fakhir Brown missed two games because of an ankle injury.
Hill and Brown, with help from the safeties, will be charged Sunday with trying to limit the damage Smith and Johnson do.
Said coach Scott Linehan, "You know that No. 89 (Smith) is one-of-a-kind. He's the biggest 5-9 guy I've ever seen. He plays so big and is such a big weapon. They use him a lot of ways; throwing the ball, handing the ball, putting him in the slot, putting him in motion, run screens. They're dangerous that way. I think they're playing better offensively than they have all year."
Hill has played all season on the edge in the nickel defense, and he knows opposing quarterbacks see a rookie out there and challenge him. He expects more of the same this week.
"I wouldn't be surprised if I'm in the game plan this week," he said. "I have to really know what I'm doing, and it's going to take a lot of film study and a lot of confidence to play with these guys."
Linehan said he has been pleased with Hill's progress throughout the season.
"Tye's gotten much more confident," Linehan said. "He understands that he's got to stay within the scheme and not fall into the old habits, rookie habits. I think he's been much more disciplined, especially in the last couple of weeks. I think he's improved weekly. He's a great competitor. He's had to overcome ups and downs, as all rookies do, and I think he's done a great job of that."
Hill said he felt bad for Fisher being hurt, but that he can't think about that.
"You never want to get a starting spot the way I got it," Hill said. "I feel for him, my heart goes out to him. But at the same time, it's time for me to emerge and really be what they drafted me to be."
The Panthers signed cornerback Dion Byrum off the Tampa Bay practice squad Thursday and added him to their 53-man roster.
Don't rule out Byrum having to play Sunday.
Injury-plagued cornerback Ken Lucas missed practice Thursday with his latest injury -- a thigh problem -- and was downgraded from probable to questionable.
According to coach John Fox, this is a new injury for Lucas, not an aggravation of an existing one.
If Lucas can't go, that would leave Carolina extremely thin at corner with only three healthy players -- Chris Gamble, Richard Marshall and nickel back Christian Morton -- against a Rams offense that is known to go with four-wide formations. That's why Byrum might get pressed into playing without much experience.
The 5-foot-10, 192-pound Byrum spent training camp with the Bears before being cut and signing with the Bucs.
"When they called, there was no hesitation," said Byrum, who worked out for the Panthers two weeks ago after being released by the Bucs. "I just have to pack my clothes and I'm on my way."
To make room on the roster, the Panthers placed defensive tackle Jordan Carstens on the reserve/non-football injury list. Carstens was recently diagnosed with a blood clot in his lung.