New attitude pays off for special teams
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Given the shoddy level of Rams special teams play in recent years, it smacks of a misprint. Maybe it was someone's idea of a joke to turn the league-wide stats upside down.
But there it is for all to see. After Week 1 of NFL play, the Rams rank 10th in the league in both kickoff coverage and punt coverage.
"I know we talked about it being an attitude, an approach, and a mentality," coach Scott Linehan said. "The thing I noticed is they wanted to make a statement, too."
The revamped Rams defense certainly made a statement in Sunday's 18-10 victory over Denver: that it no longer planned on being league doormats. The coverage units seemed to be saying they were finished being the NFL version of the Autobahn: go as fast and as far as you want on us.
"We've had our struggles since I've been here," said long snapper Chris Massey, a five-year veteran. "I guess the low point for me was the Atlanta playoff game, when (Allen Rossum) had all those returns on the punt team."
In that 2004 NFC divisional playoff game, Rossum gained 152 yards on punt returns, an NFL postseason record. One of his returns went 68 yards for a TD in a 47-17 Falcons victory.
"It was a really miserable feeling that game," Massey said.
Then again, there have been many miserable moments recently for Rams special teams. Beginning with the 2001 season, the Rams have ranked no higher than 30th in the league in kickoff coverage. Beginning with the 2002 season, the Rams have ranked no higher than 27th in punt coverage.
Based on what happened against Denver, that's all about to change under second-year special teams coach Bob Ligashesky.
The Broncos had only 3 return yards on three Matt Turk punts. One punt resulted in a fair catch, and another rolled into the end zone for a touchback. Even with the touchback, the Rams rank fifth in the league in net punting with a 42.3-yard average.
Even more impressive was the work of the kickoff coverage unit. Because of all those Jeff Wilkins field goals, the Rams kicked off seven times. Three resulted in touchbacks. None of the four that was returned went for more than 21 yards. As a result, no Denver drive started any farther than the Broncos' 21-yard line following a Rams kickoff.
"Our coverage teams were awesome," Wilkins said. "Seeing the returner coming at me, and then getting tackled right around the 20-yard line every time, that was a good feeling. We're going to keep that up, hopefully."
The combination of deep Wilkins kickoffs and superb kickoff coverage has the Rams ranked second in the league in opponent's average drive start. The Broncos' average starting point after kickoffs was their 19.7-yard line.
"Every time we put them on the 20-yard line, especially with our defense, it's going to be hard for a team to go 80 yards and score," linebacker Jamal Brooks said.
Brooks is one of several role players brought in by the Rams during the offseason to be backup or part-time position players, but core special teams performers. Others include linebacker Raonall Smith, running back Tony Fisher and fullback Paul Smith.
They had nothing to do with the shoddy special teams play of years past and seem determined not to add to that "legacy."
"We don't want to be last on any of the (coverage) units," Fisher said. "So we've got a strong will to go out there and be No. 1 this year. We know that being in the top of all the categories, you have a higher probability of making it to the playoffs."
In years past, some Rams backups didn't seem all that excited about being on special teams. That no longer seems the case.
"You've got to want to be out there," Fisher said. "To be on special teams, it's like going out there on a kamikaze mission. It was not meant to be pretty. It's about being special for one play."
Interestingly, it was first-round draft pick Tye Hill who set the tone against Denver, dropping return man Mike Bell on the 21-yard line on the game-opening kickoff.
"You don't like sitting on that sideline," Hill said. "So any time I get a chance to get on the field, I want to be out there."
And there's even more of an incentive this year to run down kickoffs. There's a little competition going, with cash prizes to the winners.
"It's whoever gets to the end zone first (on a touchback), or makes a tackle inside the 20," Hill said.
"Some of the older veterans that make the real big money are sponsoring it," Fisher said.
"We don't know," Fisher said. "It's like a secret fund."