Even the most casual Rams fan can remember the exciting, wide-open special teams play under former coordinator John Fassel. Opposing teams had to treat each punt or kickoff with the same level of intensity as they would with an offensive or defensive play.
Punter Johnny Hekker would sling the ball around on fakes, regularly flip field position with booming punts, and was stellar at pinning foes inside their own 20 yard line. In the Sean McVay era, on fake punts, he has recorded seven completed passes, six of which went for 1st downs.
Greg Zuerlein was an offensive weapon in his own right. Once the Rams crossed mid-field, “Greg the Leg” could be called on for field goals. His accuracy range was from 60 yards in and in McVay era, he connected on 75% of FG’s over 50 yards and 85% overall.
Fassel had groomed Hekker, Zuerlein, and longsnapper Jake McQuaid together into seven All-Pro berths.
Kick off returners Pharoh Cooper, Blake Countess, JoJo Natson, and Nsimba Webster were not game breakers but all solidly averaged over 20 yards per return. Cooper was named 1st team All-Pro in 2017 as a punt/kickoff runner.
Things soured in 2019. The ST unit’s production had fallen off for two consecutive years, multiple kicks were blocked, and at times, Sean McVay was visibly upset at Fassel’s aggressive, some say reckless, fake punt calls. McVay did not retain Fassel for the 2020 season.
For the 2020 season, McVay chose a career ST coach with no distinctive past, except for bouncing around between pro teams. The Rams brass did him no favors by bringing in three place-kickers with zero NFL experience to replace the fading Greg Zuerlein. The results were disastrous. Consistently making field goals and extra points were an adventure until Matt Gay was signed and stabilized the position.
Hekker and McQuaid were solid, but the unit as a whole, faded to the dregs of the league. Rick Gosselin of Sports Illustrated, who does a yearly special teams report, had the Rams ranked 30th.
The Bonamego era was short-lived. He was moved to NFL equivalent of Siberia, the ambiguous “senior coaching assistant”.
In his place, the Rams added Joe DeCamillis, another journeyman coach who has spent 33 years as a ST coach. JoeD began his career with (his father-in-law) Mike Shanahan on the Denver Broncos. Sean McVay’s hiring of DeCamillis is another move, like the hiring of defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, that brings in another coach that he has ties to.
His ST units for the Jacksonville Jaguars were generally good from 2017 through 2020 and his reputation is that of a gung-ho, emotional top-quality coordinator.
So far in 2021, the performance of his squad has been mediocre at best. And that takes into consideration that Matt Gay has been outstanding. Gay is converting both FG’s and XP’s at over a 95% clip.
Was keeping Hekker the right decision?
Hekker has been average. His punting average of 42.8 yards per punt rank him as 31st in the league, but his percentage of punts returned is first. All his other stats are middle of the pack.
In the preseason, Hekker, was in a roster battle with Corey Bojorquez, and won the roster spot. Bojorquez was basically given away to the Green Bay Packers, and at half the salary, is ahead of Hekker in every punting category but one. All while punting from the frozen tundra.
The return game is defined by a lack of explosiveness
Punt returners Tutu Atwell, Cooper Kupp, and J.J. Koski have returned a total of 13 punts for 82 yards. Both numbers are in the NFL’s bottom three. The bad news is the Rams defense haven’t forced many punts. The good news is returning one punt per game lessens the chance of fumbles. Watching punt returns gives a sense of uneasiness, like something is about to go wrong.
There hasn’t been much consistency with kickoff returns, I won’t cite the numbers because they are also at the league’s bottom. Rookies Atwell, Koski, Ben Skowronek, and Jake Funk have shown they are not ready for primetime. Kupp returning kicks makes no sense with wide receiver depth problem. Buddy Howell and Sony Michel are both power backs and are ill-suited to the return game. But I thought that vs. the Packers last Sunday, Michel ran hard and looked better than any of the others.
Coverage units are a mixed bag
There have been so few punt returns, there is no true consensus on how to grade them. With the Rams big play offense scoring on 50% of drives, and the soft coverages of their defense allowing opponents to gain a major time of possession advantage, the punt unit just hasn’t gotten a lot of work. And while Hekker has been fair at pinning foes inside their 20, he has also kicked quite a few clunkers. In last Sunday’s loss, the Rams punted five times and four went short, either out of bounds or rolling dead.
Kickoff coverage is in the bottom half of the league, even though Gay has booted 54% through the end zone. The unit has improved over the first eight games, but some of that may be because the offense isn’t scoring as much. Earlier in the season, big KO returns were a weekly occurrence.
What can be improved?
The Rams special teams unit doesn’t play with a lot of emotion considering DeCamillis is supposedly fiery guy. There hasn’t been a lot of flash plays to fire guys up, but even after the the Robert Rochell punt-muff recovery last Sunday (which was a huge turnover) the Rams didn’t seem to get jacked up. Get those cats fired up, JoeD.
DeCamillis has dialed up two fakes. A completed fake punt pass from Hekker to Skowronek vs. the New York Giants that was mysteriously called back by referees. And the fake FG vs. the San Francisco 49ers. The play was well designed, but the timing and situation were all wrong. Tight end Kendall Blanton is not athletic or fast enough to realistically be expected to gain the eight yards that was needed to convert.
As long as they don’t fumble, the return teams won’t be a burden. Ball security should be paramount, the Rams would be hard-pressed to find a dynamic returner at this late stage of the season.
Hekker may be on the down-hill-side but is still solid and serviceable. Gay has been consistently stellar. The kicking game is still in good hands. Next year, Hekk is due to make over $3 mil and Gay is a restricted free agent.
Overall, like the other Rams units, it’s as much about philosophy and scheme. Special teams should be assertive and aggressive, making splash plays that start or change momentum. Fans can only realistically expect a small special team improvement in Joe DeCamillis’ first year, even with the bar set so low.