CHARLOTTE – Carolina will bring a new coach and a new starting quarterback out west against the reigning Super Bowl champions this week.
Here are five things to watch in Week 6:
INJURIES PRESENT QUARTERBACK CHALLENGE
Several unexpected twists led to PJ Walker's place in the driver's seat for Carolina's offense. Wilks said Friday that Walker, who took the bulk of first-team reps in practice this week, would start in Los Angeles, as Baker Mayfield's immediate future with his ankle injury remained unknown.
Mayfield didn't practice this week and wore a boot on Wednesday and Thursday, but he shed the boot on Friday and impressed Wilks during his morning workout. Wilks said the results of a final MRI would determine Mayfield's availability as a backup to Walker.
Walker will make his third career start with the Panthers on Sunday, heading into the Rams matchup 2-0. Walker, an undrafted career backup, led Carolina to a 20-0 win over Detroit in 2020 and a 34-10 win over Arizona in 2021.
The Panthers' offense will be looking to turn a corner – and quickly – against the Rams, ranked last in the NFL in total offense and on third down. The Panthers are also toward the end of the league in passing offense (28th), yards per play (28th), and big plays (tied for 29th).
Los Angeles' defense is best against the run, where Carolina is ranked 27th, and the Rams are 11th. The Rams are also stingy in the red zone, ranked fourth in red-zone defense, and limit big plays, tied for second in that category.
DEFENSE LOOKS TO PRESSURE STRUGGLING RAMS
Los Angeles can relate to Carolina's issues on offense, as Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford will need to lead the Rams' effort to get their post-Super Bowl season back on track against the Panthers.
The Rams are last in the league in big plays, yards per play, rushing offense, and sacks, with much of that blame due to multiple injuries along their offensive line. Nine players have started on Los Angeles' offensive line, with only its two tackles staying put through the first five weeks of the regular season.
That pressure has resulted in Stafford tying with Indianapolis' Matt Ryan for the most interceptions (seven) and most sacks taken (21) heading into Week 6.
The Panthers will look to add pressure on Stafford, likely leaning on defensive end Brian Burns to shoulder a big part of that load. Burns will head to Los Angeles with a team-high four sacks.
Carolina will play for an interim defensive coordinator for the first time this week, as Wilks parted ways with Phil Snow and appointed longtime assistant Al Holcomb to call the defense for the remaining 12 games.
QUESTIONS SURROUNDING THE SECONDARY
The Panthers also dealt with a host of injuries to its secondary this week, particularly new injuries to cornerbacks.
Three cornerbacks, including Carolina's two starters, were all listed as questionable on Friday's final injury report. Jaycee Horn left the 49ers game in Week 5 with the rib injury that sidelined him for all of practice; Donte Jackson's ankle injury placed him on the injury report midweek, and a knee injury limited CJ Henderson throughout the week.
Wilks said Jackson "should be fine" Friday, and Horn was trending in the right direction, though he was also mindful of the risk of making things worse long-term for the second-year star.
Backup cornerback and special teams contributor Stantley Thomas-Oliver III will be out with a thigh injury.
There's good news at safety, with veteran leader Xavier Woods returning to full practice Friday off a hamstring injury that kept him out of the 49ers game. Woods' return is significant, as fellow starting safety Jeremy Chinn remains on injured reserve with a hamstring injury from Week 4.
Linebacker Frankie Luvu was listed as questionable for Sunday, limited in Thursday and Friday practice with a shoulder injury.
WATCHING OUT FOR LA STARS
The Panthers will need their secondary to be as healthy as possible as they face prolific wide receiver Cooper Kupp.
Kupp ranks first of all NFL receivers in touches, scrimmage yards, and scrimmage touchdowns. He's the X-factor Los Angeles needs as they generally struggle on offense this season. Kupp's big-play ability (averaging 10.8 yards per catch, with 527 receiving yards on 49 receptions) and reliability (four receiving touchdowns) make him a formidable threat for an injured Carolina secondary.
Kupp was listed as questionable for Sunday's game with a foot injury, though head coach Sean McVay said he expected Kupp to play.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers must prepare to take on one of the top talents in NFL football, defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Donald has started the 2022 season with four sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery, adding to his long career of offensive disruption. He is also listed as questionable with a foot injury, though McVay expressed the same optimism that he would play.
FIRST TIME FOR WILKS AS CAROLINA'S INTERIM COACH
Sunday will be the Panthers' first time out since parting ways with Matt Rhule, as Charlotte native and former assistant coach Wilks took over this week.
Wilks' straightforward and intense approach resonated with the locker room this week. He has already switched around a few things, including changing the Panthers' weekly practice in full pads from Thursday to Wednesday.
Wilks has been a head coach before when he had the job at Arizona for one year, but this time he gets 12 weeks to lay his foundation with the Panthers, his hometown team, and the team he saw success with the first time he was here from 2012-17.
View photos of action between the Panthers and Rams through the Years. Carolina owns a 13-9 advantage in the all-time series record.