At first blush, it would appear the Los Angeles Rams special teams struggled in the 34-17 opening los to the Los Angeles Chargers. But a longer look shows that the young unit actually was pretty good and many of the mistakes can be fixed without major tear downs.
New ST Coordinator Chase Blackburn used a vast number of different groupings on the individual units, in all, 55 Rams saw snaps on special teams.Talk about getting look at everybody. I don’t believe that any one of the punt/kickoff gunner duos were the same.
Another thing that deserves to be noted, the Chargers mighty-might returner Derius Davis can run the rock. Back in January, I profiled Davis as late round pick that could solidify the Rams return game
But that was then (sigh) and this is what I think of the Rams special teams now after the first preseason game.
Evans had six punts on the day and showed off his big leg, averaging 51.3 yards per kick. Two were down inside the 10, another just landed in the end zone for a touchback. Three of his kicks were returned for a total of 84 yards, with all of those on the touchdown run. Two were fair caught.
Punt #1 - A nice high-hanging boot that was fair caught at the eight yard line. The gunners Robert Rochell and Demarcus Robinson faced single blockers. Both got downfield unencumbered. Robinson was away from the punt and held his contain, but was too far from the ball when fair caught. Rochell looked a little lost following the ball in the air, but redirected and was, I think, in pretty good shape to make a play on the ball/runner. Jaiden Woodbey had hustled down in support, as well and the cavalry was right behind.
Punt #2 - Single blockers on gunners Tyler Johnson and Jason Taylor and both beat it easily. This kick didn’t appear as high but went over 60 yards the air, midway between the hash and sideline. Taylor hustled down field, broke down well and was in good position for the tackle when blocked from behind. The ball was away from Johnson and he took a good angle, just got juked by the returner. The rest of the coverage converged after a 10 yard return. It was all called back for blocking in the back.
Punt #3 - Flew 70 yards in the air and looked to have good height. The Chargers double-teamed the gunner Timarcus Davis and left Jason Taylor singled. Davis struggled to get loose on one side and while Taylor was in good position, he was 12 yards short of where the ball was caught and the returner simply ran away from his side. Although, the Rams coverage spacing looked good, Daniel Hardy did not break down and after a cut by the returner, was left trying to make a moving arm tackle. The returner broke a weak arm tackle and turned on the jets in an open gap.
Punt #4 - A beautiful 73 yard high spiral that landed about a 1⁄2 yard over the goal line. Close but no cigar.
Punt #5 - Another beauty, this time fro inside his own five. He flipped the field by dropping a 58 yard punt right on the sideline.
Punt #6 - Another high beauty that he he dropped at the 10 hardline. Tiyon Davis and Vincent gray were the gunners and both were tied up well. Daniel Hardy, Zach Evans and Ryan amends hustled down in the gunner’s void.
The Rams forced four punts for the game. The Chargers punter, J.K. Scott, is the opposite style of kicker than Evans. He not a boomer, prefering to exchange depth for hang time.
The first punt looked to have the most return room of all four, the Rams double-teamed both opposing gunners and there appeared to be some space to make a move and an open sideline. Puka Nacua decided to take the conservative route and called a fair catch. Giving him somewhat of a defense, it was on the Chargers 45. Kelechie Anyalebechie was called for holding, he didn’t let the coverage get far off the line of scrimmage, but got tied up and took his defender to the ground.
Xavier Smith handled the three second half punts and looked a little shaky tracking the football in the air, bobbling/double catching all three. His first wo were fair catches and the last one looked like he might have a little space, but by the time he finally corralled into his chest, defenders were on him.
I think the big surprise was that Tanner Brown kicked off in the 1st half and punter Ethan Evans took over the duty in the 2nd. Brown only had two kickoffs, the first was the game’s opening boot, a solid directional kick about midway between the hash mark to the three. the second went into the end zone for a touch back. Evans’ kicks were all straight on power shots with no returns. With the way it played out, it was likely part of the game plan, but should fans read anything into this?
Not a lot to see here with all the touch backs. The only return action to start the game and the aforementioned directional kick. Jason Taylor was in good position to make an early tackle and was blatantly held. The 21 yard return was called back.
On the All-22 views, it looks the Rams got down the field well and kept good spacing, but not enough action to really point out any flaws or good work.
After Chargers field goals, Ronnie Rivers was deep on the first three kickoffs. The first was a short kick to the nine and returned 14 yards and the second was a directional kick he took near the sideline at the two returning for 17 yards. The Rams would have been better served to fair catch both and take the ball on the 25. The third was a touchback.
Xavier Smith took the second half kickoffs and all were into the end zone. Nothing to see here.
Field Goal and PAT
Brown missed his first FG attempt. Everything was right, he just hooked. To his credit, he did come right back and make a 39 yarder. PATs were all in sync by the three rookies. In Brown’s first game, he looks like he has a little hook to his trajectory, but does gain good height that rises quickly out of the hold.
Long snapper and holder
Alex Ward got off to good start. Every one of his snaps were right on target, with nice tight spirals, and good velocity.
Evans did not hold in college and looked solid in his maiden effort. He doesn’t strike me as having soft hands, but that might be my bad optics, because he’s built more like a linebacker than holder.
Evans was stellar in all facets, he punted, kicked off the tee and was the holder on place kicks. This is not a kid from a highly-pedigreed college program with full compliment of coaches, Wingate sounds like some cheesy suburban tract housing development. It’s his first pro game and he’ll get better. With that booming leg, he may have to work on control and/or directing the ball towards the sideline. I did not have a watch on his hang time, but I feel that by watching the body language of the Chargers return man and how he angled to field the ball, that Evans air time was not lacking.
Aside the FG miss, Brown was good. Could have been nerves or concentration. The missed field goal is important to note though, Rams fans are used to successful kickers. Matt Gay hit 90% of attempts over three seasons and Greg Zuerlein was “only” 82%, but was in range every time L.A. crossed mid-field. The boo birds will be out and ravenous if he cannot convert in that 80-90% range.
With a long snapper, the less said the better. If that’s the baseline for success, Evans is off to a good start. It’s only one game, but I think he was able to improve on the weak spots of his game, as pointed out by Lance Zielein at NFL.com. Well, maybe not the coverage pursuit, at least not yet.
Giving up a long punt return is certainly a bad sign for the coverage game, but again the Rams rotated so many players through the lineups, half of those guys are not going to be around after September 1. And as I noted earlier, Derius Davis can run with the rock in space. It’s hard to project any individuals as special teams demons after this game, but Rochell and Taylor look like they might be pretty good as gunners.
The returners did not show much. Rivers is the “Steady Freddy”, he’s not particularly fast nor elusive in the open field, but he does have steady hands, a slashing style, and will hit the hole hard and with 100% effort. Smith looked nervous and unsure trying to track the football and didn’t get an offensive rep. Nacua had just the one punt return, it looked like he had some room to run but decided against it. I would expect some other players getting return reps going forward.
Nothing on punt blocks, fakes or onside kicks. First, the flow of the game didn’t call for it, but more importantly, if they have some special voodoo, they’re not going to show it in preseason. I think that goes for all the units, if there something special, it’s going to be shown in the regular season.
How do you think the special teams played?