Kickoff coverage bedevils the Rams
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Friday, Jan. 07 2005

Just outside the locker room, the picture in the hallway at Rams Park speaks
volumes about the state of the team's kickoff coverage.

There, honored as the Rams' special teams player of the week, is a framed
poster-sized shot of Jeff Wilkins. But Wilkins isn't shown booting his
game-winning field goal against the New York Jets - a kick that sent the team
into the playoffs.

No, it shows Wilkins tackling Jets kickoff return man Jerricho
Cotchery.

"Thank God we have him," coach Mike Martz said. "It's not a good statement when
your kicker is the leading tackler on the kickoffs. But that's a very, very
difficult issue. One that has to get resolved if we're going to have any
success in the playoff picture."

No doubt.

Martz's comment on Wilkins' tackling total is an exaggeration, but only a
slight one. Wilkins has nine special teams stops this season, tied for
seventh-best on the squad. Keep in mind, he doesn't have a chance to "pad" his
stats by running down punts.

"We cannot expect Jeff Wilkins to make the tackle," said safety Adam Archuleta,
who has been on the kickoff coverage unit most of the season. "He's not
supposed to. A kicker should go through an entire football season and not have
to make a tackle."

Not even Wilkins can get them all. He was pancaked by a Jets blocker trying to
run down Cotchery on his 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third
quarter. Cotchery had a h-u-g-e seam to run through - one nearly 10 yards wide
when he hit the hole.

Jets blockers formed a wedge near the New York sideline to wall off Archuleta,
DeJuan Groce and Brandon Chillar near the 22-yard line. Ten yards in toward the
middle of the field, three more Jets blockers walled off Rich Coady and Drew
Wahlroos near the 27. Between the two walls was nothing but wide-open spaces,
so much so that Cotchery couldn't take much credit for the TD.

"My grandma could have ran for a touchdown on that one," he said.

With the Jets using a similar blocking scheme, Cotchery nearly had a TD earlier
in the game. It took one of Wilkins' now-patented shoestring tackles to prevent
a score. All told, Cotchery had 196 yards on five kickoff returns.

"We have to be accountable," Archuleta said. "It's something that needs to be
fixed, and it's a glaring weakness on our football team."

On Monday, Martz said the problem is part personnel and part coaching.

"And I think we can resolve both of those," Martz said.

Which seems like an optimistic assessment since the problem hasn't been
resolved all season. The Rams finished 32nd - that's last - in the NFL in
kickoff coverage during the regular season.

"I'm really concerned," Martz said. "We've had one or two games where we've
done a real nice job, and then the rest of the time, it's pretty hit or miss."

Seattle, today's playoff foe at Qwest Field, isn't a juggernaut on kickoff
returns, ranking 22nd in the league. Maurice Morris, the Seahawks' primary
kickoff returner the past three seasons, has only one career TD. It came
against - surprise! - the Rams, on a 97-yard return in 2002.

"We've tried a lot of different things, from putting different guys in
different positions, to movement," defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "It really
is going to come down to the 10 guys that are out there, other than Wilkie,
have to play with their hair on fire."

Now that's a radical solution. But don't be surprised if equipment manager Todd
Hewitt is seen manning a propane torch today on the sideline. Nothing else has
worked.

Beginning with the Green Bay game Nov. 29, the Rams went through a phase where
they sprinkled in more starters on kickoff coverage, including Fisher, and
linebackers Pisa Tinoisamoa and Robert Thomas. Even defensive end Leonard
Little, a special teams phenom a few years ago, ran down a couple of kicks that
night. But those were the only kicks Little has covered this season. Tinoisamoa
and Thomas rarely have been used lately.

Martz remains hesitant about using more starters, but the Rams aren't the only
team that employs that approach on special teams. The Jets, for example, didn't
use a single starter on the kickoff return unit that carved up the Rams.
(Except for cornerback David Barrett on just one of the Jets' five returns.)

One of the Rams' more exuberant and more effective kickoff coverage players,
rookie Anthony Hargrove, hasn't been used there lately. He has suffered two
concussions running down kicks. In addition, he is now the team's starting
right defensive end. But Hargrove may be back on kickoff coverage today - he
worked there during the week.

Trev Faulk, the team's top special teams tackler during the regular season with
24 stops, has been getting double-teamed lately on kickoff coverage.

In addition, both the distance and hang time by Wilkins have been less than
ideal on kickoffs, causing Martz to wonder if Wilkins' leg is tired. The team
used a machine to spit out kickoffs in practice this week, instead of Wilkins.