When it comes to special teams in the NFL, nobody seems to notice the third phase of the game until it costs a win. The Los Angeles Rams found out the hard way on Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens won in overtime on a Tylan Wallace punt return for a touchdown. In case it wasn’t already known, the Rams have a special teams problem.
It can certainly be argued that the Rams have now lost two games this season due to special teams. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was Brett Maher missing long field goals that not only resulted in points left off the board, but shorter fields for a struggling offense. Sunday was just the epitome of the issues as the Rams watched Wallace run past their coverage unit and score a touchdown in walk-off fashion. If it’s not the issues at kicker, it’s something else.
On Monday McVay said,
“Yesterday, really when you look at it, I was really pleased with our field goal operation..But it’s really the punt return and punt phase and those are the ones that you’re competing the most in because the landscape of the league, you’re seeing a lot of touch backs. You’re seeing a lot of fair catches in some of these kick return situations and so there’s so many things going on each play that it’s never one thing that you can highlight. But there’s 11 moving parts whether you talk about their punt return for touchdown...but it’s always about team ball. It’s always about everybody doing their one eleventh...We’ll continue to work towards those things that you’re talking about, but the main areas of improvement as it relates to yesterday are in our punt and punt return phases.”
This season, the Rams rank 32nd in special teams DVOA and it’s not remotely close. The Rams special teams DVOA currently sits at -8.3 percent. The gap between the Rams at 32 and New England Patriots at 31 with -4.3 percent DVOA is the same as the Patriots at 31 at Detroit Lions at 17. That is significant.
Tylan Wallace takes it all the way for a walk-off punt return TD! pic.twitter.com/VWBqUd82VN— NFL (@NFL) December 10, 2023
To add to that, no team over the last two seasons has been worse. You have to go back to 2020 when the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Chargers who had a -9.4 percent and -11.8 percent special teams DVOA.
“The Rams going toe-to-toe with Baltimore and then losing on a punt-return touchdown in overtime was not as shocking as it might seem. The Rams have played better teams tough multiple times this season. They checked that box again Sunday. The Rams also have ranked near the bottom of the NFL in special teams EPA. This could reflect their roster construction. With only one defensive player earning more than $1.3 million, they aren’t in position to fill their special teams coverage units with seasoned veterans. They still shouldn’t give up a punt-return touchdown in overtime after playing so well for so long. Rough.”
Pro Football Focus also has the Rams graded as the worst special teams unit in the NFL with a 61.8 grade. Among players that have played at least 50 percent of their teams’ special teams snaps, Jake Hummel is the Rams’ highest-graded special teams player. He ranks 26th. The next highest-graded player is Tre Tomlinson who ranks 63rd. Tomlinson and Christian Rozeboom each have five missed tackles on special teams which is tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
It is worth noting that this is a young roster and it is special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn’s first year. However, in 2020 and 2021 with the Carolina Panthers as the special teams coordinator, Blackburn had the 16th and 24th ranked special teams units in DVOA.
What’s odd is that the Rams used to pride themselves on having good special teams. Under John Fassel the Rams had a down first year, but finished fourth in DVOA in 2013 and they never ranked lower than seventh while Jeff Fisher was the head coach.
However, that changed shortly after Sean McVay’s arrival. While the Rams ranked second in special teams DVOA in 2017, they fell to 17th in 2018 and all the way down to 23rd in 2019. Fassel was let go after the 2019 season.
Since then, the Rams special teams coordinator has been the Defense Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts. John Bonamego was hired in 2020 and barely made it through the season. Bonamego was moved out of that position and into a senior coaching assistant role after the Rams finished 30th in special teams DVOA.
McVay then hired Joe DeCamillis as the special teams coordinator in 2021. The Rams actually had one of their best special teams seasons in 2021 since McVay took over as DeCamillis led the Rams to the fourth-best special teams unit. Los Angeles fell down to 23rd last year, however, and DeCamillis was once again let go.
The Rams are on their third different special teams coordinator since Fassel left. If they finish ranked 32nd, it will be the second time in four seasons that they have fielded a bottom-three special teams unit.
This season, the Rams have had especially poor luck at the kicker position where they started with Tanner Brown, signed Brett Maher, brought in Lucas Havrisik, and almost replaced him with Mason Crosby. Meanwhile, Fassel and the Dallas Cowboys found Brandon Aubrey from the USFL and was a former Notre Dame soccer player. Aubrey has been one of the best kickers in the NFL this season.
Yes, coaching may be part of the Rams special teams issues. They haven’t developed a kicker since signing Greg Zuerlein as an undrafted free agent back in 2012. The jury is still out on Ethan Evans at punter.
Ethan Evans and Rams punt team this season out of 29 qualifying punters:— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) December 13, 2023
*40.5 net yards (23rd)
*18 punts inside-20 (23rd)
*49% punts returned (23rd)
*355 return yards (27th)
*14.2 yards per return (29th)
*6 touchbacks (22nd)
*11 fair catches (23rd)
*4 downed (22nd)
At the same time, the issue seems to be partly philosophical. Following the 2019 season when the Rams adecided not to bring back Fassel, they also decided not to re-sign kicker Greg Zuerlein. Instead, Zuerlein followed Fassel to the Cowboys, signing a three-year, $7.5M contract. The Rams had a carosel of kickers in 2020 in Sam Sloman and Kai Forbath before eventually landing on Matt Gay.
The Rams could have re-signed Gay long-term when he was a restricted free agent heading into the 2022 season. Instead, they simply signed his tender, keeping him on the team for one more season. Gay signed a four-year, $22.5M contract with the Indianapolis Colts last offseason.
It’s not just the kicker position either. The Rams have struggled to find consistency with their returners as well. It’s gotten to the point where Cooper Kupp has been on punt return duty at times. Last season Brandon Powell ranked 13th in yards per punt return. Powell signed a one year contract worth $1.2M with the Minnesota Vikings. Among players with at least 20 punt returns, Powell ranks 11th with 8.4 yards per return in 2023.
As with most things, the answer to the Rams special teams woes are both coaching and philosophical. It’s not necessary to invest in special teams to be good in that department. The Chargers rank first in special teams DVOA. Last season they signed Cameron Dicker, a player who the Rams brought in as an undrafted free agent, to a one-year $870K contract. Derius Davis leads the NFL in yards per punt return and was drafted in the fourth-round.
The Rams had Dicker and whether it was coaching who decided that he wasn’t good enough or coaching that didn’t develop him, that’s a problem. It’s also a problem that when the Rams have found players to fill these spots, there hasn’t been much of a plan to replace them other than “let’s throw this at the wall and hope it sticks”.
Special teams is typically reserved for bottom of the roster players. Over the past few seasons, the Rams have lacked that depth on the roster and this year they lack experience. However, while that is true, average to below average special teams play has been the norm since Sean McVay has taken over.
Again, special teams play isn’t something that’s thought of until you need it. You can argue that it has cost the Rams two games this season as they sit one game out of a wild card spot in the NFC Playoff race. As Tylan Wallace ran past 11 white jerseys on Sunday, will the importance of special teams finally click, or will the Rams continue with their current philosophy?