When the Los Angeles Rams offense is not hitting on all cylinders, the onus falls on the defense and special teams to rise the tides. In Monday night’s 19-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the defense held up its end, and while the oft-maligned special teams held its mud until the middle of the fourth quarter, they couldn’t seal the deal.
Behind 16-9, the Rams were still within reach when they took over the ball with 10:20 left in the game. A long incompletion followed by back-to-back sacks had the Rams punting from the back of the end zone. Ethan Evans resulting punt was long, but low, and the Bengals took advantage, carrying the return into L.A. territory at the 40. The Rams defense buckled down for a 3-and-out, but Cincinnati converted the 54 yard field goal. That three-pointer turned out to be the difference in the hard-fought game.
Here’s the weekly review of L.A.’s special teams play.
The Rams sputtering offense kept Ethan Evans busy with six punts. Four were returned, one was fair caught, and another caromed out of bounds. The punt that went out of bounds did so at the Cincinnati 11. For the day, he had 51 yard per punt and 43.5 net yard average. On the season, On the season, those numbers are 51 per punt and 42.6 net, ranking the rookie 6th in the NFL in yards per punt and 13th in net yards.
The Rams are not even trying any directional kicks. The just allow Evans let the shaft out and boot it through the end zone. That makes it 14 of 15 on the season, considering how the punt coverage has panned out, touchbacks could be the best possible outcomes.
Extra points and field goals
Bret Maher was spot on again, converting three field goals versus the Bengals from 30, 23, and 42 yards. He also made his only extra point try. All of them solidly splitting the uprights. On the season, Maher has an 82% strike clip on field goals, 9 for 11. Both misses were from 50+ yards. He has converted 100% of PATs, 6 of 6.
Not a weak effort on three of four returns, the bad one was costly though and no step-up plays were recorded.
On the first punt, Evans launched it 60 air yards to the Cincinnati 15, gunner Duke Shelley beat a single blocker and was in position to make the stop at its catch point, but missed the tackle. Opposite side gunner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson hustled down and was able to wrap up the returner at the 20.
With 1:22 left in the half, Evans let loose for 60 air yards toward the sideline to the Cincy 30. The Bengals double-teamed THT and the returner cut towards the middle of the field. What appeared to be a big whole closed up quickly and held the return to 10 yards. There was very close block in the back non-call that opened that gap. Why this was costly was because the Rams had not done a good job of manipulating the clock, starting from the eight yard line and 2:16 left in the half. They seemed uncommitted to running the clock out or trying to attack downfield and it led to the Bengals tying the score at half.
As the 3rd quarter ticked down, Evans flipped the field from the Rams own 10 to the Bengals 20. Gunner Shelley did a good job of fighting off a double-team, but lost outside contain and allowed a eight yard return down the sideline.
On the final punt return, closing in on the midway point of the final quarter, Evans booted from the back of the end zone. He got off a long, low kick to the Cincy 41. THT fought a double-team off, but lost his footing (or was knocked down) and the returner hit that gap for a 19 yard return, effectively setting up the Bengals for a field goal try without an offensive yard. That Bengals field goal was the difference in a three point loss.
On the only punt return, Kyren Williams field the punt at the five and returned it forward three yards. Questionable decision, traditional thinking is to let that ball go and likely bounce into the end zone, but the Bengals gunner had good coverage and was right there in solid position to down any bounce. The problem was that outside blocker Duke Shelley barely got a hand on the gunner and he got down the field unmolested.
On the 2nd half kickoff, the Bengals kicked it short to the 12. Ronnie Rivers took the conservative route and called a fair catch, but All-22 showed nice room up the center of the field.
On the very next kickoff after the Cincy touchdown, the Stripes went back short to Rivers. This time he returned into better coverage 12 yards to the 24. Pretty much the same result as a fair catch. Rivers tried to get to what looked like an opening, but he not really fast and the window closed.
Snaps, holds, and pressure
Alex Ward is very consistent in his snaps, I have no idea if he can manipulate the ball rotation so the laces are face down when it reaches the holder. But Evans had never held before this season and has not had to reach or spend extra ticks on adjustments. The Rams don’t apply much pressure trying to block kicks, choosing the conservative route of trying to hold up coverage.
The two rookies, punter Ethan Evans and long snapper Alex Ward have been solid. A great plus for the rookie class. Evans does need to work on hang time. Kicker Bret Maher has settled in as well. After the implosion of Tanner Brown, I’ll admit that visions of 2020 crept into my head, so it’s really good to see Maher thrive.
The coverage units will really have to work hard. Evans lower trajectories are going to press them on a fine line and until he gets the high-ball stroke down they will really have to hustle down the field. In reality though, the missing piece could be tackling. That first guy down there has to get a hold and not slip off.
The return game is basically nil. Kyren Williams and Ronnie Rivers are game and have solid hands, but their running styles are more akin to slashers, not jitterbugs that make ankle-breaking cuts or burners who can outrun angles. Unless the L.A. braintrust decides to give Xavier Smith some run off the practice squad, expect the return game to be somewhat plodding.
Like a lot of the Rams units, the rebuilt special teams is still in its growth stages. Results have been spotty and more growing pains should be expected.