Rams look for better second half vs. Panthers

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The glass is half full for the St. Louis Rams — nearly, anyway — who have already tripled their 2009 win total. They’re one of the NFL’s surprise teams.

If not for some empty second halves, they’d be a lot more highly regarded heading into today’s game against the 1-5 Carolina Panthers. The Rams (3-4) could easily be 5-2 and atop the NFC West, losing three games by a total of seven points. Only once, in a blowout at Detroit in Week 5, were they not in it until the finish.

They’re well aware of the missed opportunities.

Finishing as strong as they start was emphasized in practice last week. Then they squandered an 11-point halftime lead, managing only 96 yards and no points the rest of the way in an 18-17 loss at Tampa Bay.

“Believe me, there was a lot of focus and attention to detail as far as making sure that the second half was going to be successful,” center Jason Brown said. “For some reason, it didn’t pan out that way, you didn’t see it on the scoreboard.

“It’s a lot of things we’re doing to ourselves.”

This week, they’re emphasizing it again. Offensive linemen are adding an incentive, with the first one to commit a false start picking up a hefty tab at the weekly dinner.

“Last week I was the one that paid,” rookie tackle Rodger Saffold said. “They took it easy on me, only $700.”

Coach Steve Spagnuolo blames the second half blahs on a combination of minor gaffes. Gift interceptions that got dropped. Missed tackles, missed assignments, blown coverages.

While the coaches try to find with solutions, Spagnuolo just wants players to keep at it.

“I told the guys in there, don’t be deep thinking this thing,” he said. “Do we have to get better in the second half? Yeah. Was it scheme? Calls? Did they make any major adjustments? I don’t think so.”

The last two weeks the Rams have been accused of retreating into a shell to preserve the lead. They were able to hang on for a 20-17 win over the Chargers after leading 17-3 at the break, but weren’t so lucky last week, managing six first downs and no points.

Defense has not been a problem; the Rams have allowed 18 or fewer points in all but one of their games. But St. Louis surrendered a 16-play, 81-yard drive capped by the winning touchdown pass with 10 seconds to go in last week’s 18-17 loss at Tampa Bay.

In the first half, the Rams have looked much better. They’ve yet to allow a touchdown in the first quarter and have outscored opponents 81-59 in the half.

The Panthers have a profile that appears ripe for the Rams to exploit, getting outscored 75-43 in the first half. They’re also the lowest scoring team in the NFL, averaging 12 points.

They’re among the youngest teams in the league, too, after slashing payroll in the offseason. Coach John Fox appears to be a lame duck after management declined after the last two seasons to grant an extension, but said he’s wasted no time worrying about the future.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years, so I’ve never had a problem with my focus,” Fox said. “That really has little or nothing to do with anything.

“This is this season, and all I’m looking at right now is this game.”

The Panthers were 12-4 and NFC South champions in 2008 and went 8-8 last year. The subsequent exodus has been tough for remaining veterans. There are only five players 30 or older, half as many as the Rams have.

“That’s the business side of it,” wide receiver Steve Smith said. “That happens, turnover in any corporation or business. You’re just fortunate that right now, this year, I wasn’t part of the turnover.”

The Rams might get a bit of inspiration when Isaac Bruce’s No. 80 jersey is retired in a pre-game ceremony today. The Rams will wear throwback uniforms from 1999, the year Bruce, Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk led the Greatest Show on Turf to a Super Bowl championship.

PANTHERS: OUT: T Jeff Otah (knee). DOUBTFUL: WR Devin Thomas (groin), RB DeAngelo Williams (foot). RAMS: OUT: CB Justin King (hamstring), TE Fendi Onobun (back), S Darian Stewart (hamstring). QUESTIONABLE: WR Danario Alexander (knee), CB Ron Bartell (neck), RB Steven Jackson (finger), DT Fred Robbins (toe), DT Darell Scott (ankle), T Jason Smith (concussion). PROBABLE: S James Butler (knee), WR Mardy Gilyard (hamstring), LB James Laurinaitis (knee), LB David Vobora (hamstring).

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