Rams are bullish over special teams
16 hours ago • By Joe Lyons jlyons@post-dispatch.com > 636-493-9675

Mainly because of inexperience and penalties, Rams special teams play started slowly and came on strong a year ago. The key now is to build on that late-season progress.

“You know, we had a good year covering the ball, (but) we haven’t even talked about last year at all this year,’’ special teams coordinator John Fassel said following a recent offseason practice session at Rams Park. “We’ve got a lot of guys returning, which is great, and obviously — when we get to training camp and into the season — we’ll talk about improving on what we did.

“I know that’s going to be a good challenge because I thought we did a pretty good job last year.’’

The Rams led the league in punt return yardage allowed, giving up just 79 yards on 30 returns — 2.6 yards per runback — and finished in a tie for eighth in kickoff coverage, allowing 21.8 yards per return.

A pair of second-year players, punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein, were at the heart of that special-teams success. Hekker earned his first Pro Bowl trip after averaging 46.3 yards on 78 punts while setting an NFL record with a 44.2-yard net punting average. Zuerlein tied for fourth in the league with 52 touchbacks a year ago.

“Johnny was really good and obviously the goal is to be better,’’ Fassel said. “When you look at the all-time net punt record ... that’s a high standard. (But) Johnny knows there are some things ... there’s room for improvement.’’

And Fassel, who goes by the nickname ‘Bones’, also expects more from Zuerlein, who took the NFL by storm as rookie by connecting on the first 15 field goals of his pro career. He tailed off a bit as that season wore on, but still set franchise records with a 60-yard field goal and seven successful kicks from 50 yards or better.

Last year, Zuerlein had fewer long-range attempts — making one of two from beyond 50 yards after attempting 13 from that range as a rookie — but showed more consistency. Leading the team with 112 points, he was perfect on 34 extra-point tries and converted 26 of his 28 field-goal attempts. That’s 92.9 percent. He made 14 field goals to open the season, missed a pair at midseason and finished with 12 straight successful kicks.

“From his first year to his second year, he got stronger, I think, as the season went on compared to the first year where maybe he kind of got overused,’’ Fassel said of Zuerlein, a 2012 sixth-round draft choice from Missouri Western. He is now “a mature guy going into his third year, building as the season gets going and improving as the season goes on.’’

The Rams’ return game in 2013 was average, finishing 18th in the NFL on punt runbacks and 20th on kick returns. But that can be traced, in part, to the unit’s early-season penalty issues as well as speedster Tavon Austin sitting out the season’s final three games because of an ankle injury.

Austin, selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, averaged 21.1 yards on 18 kick returns and 8.5 yards on 33 returned punts. In a stunning 38-8 rout of the playoff-bound Colts in Indianapolis in Week 10, Austin had a scintillating 98-yard punt return to go along with scoring receptions covering 57 and 81 yards.

But with Austin expected to play an even bigger role offensively from the start of this season, Fassel will be looking for kick-return options.

“I think we’ve got some great candidates that can do it, that can maybe take a couple of reps off him,’’ the coach said, mentioning running backs Isaiah Pead and Tre Mason, receivers Chris Givens and Justin Veltung and defensive back Greg Reid as other possibilities.

A year ago, Veltung averaged 8.7 yards on seven punt returns while another rookie, running back Benny Cunningham, averaged 23 yards on 13 kick returns.

A key to the Rams’ success on special teams a year ago was the contributions and development of young players such as linebackers Ray Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates, receiver Stedman Bailey, defensive back Brandon McGee, running backs Chase Reynolds and Pead and safety Cody Davis.

“I think seven or eight guys on the punt team were rookies, so I would expect us to be better,’’ Fassel said. “With the guys that are returning, hopefully we pick up where we left off and even improve on that.’’

But, as Fassel stressed, training camp will provide plenty of competition for the special-teamers.

“I use everybody (in offseason practices) so it’s easy to fill out three deep per team,’’ Fassel said. “We go pretty high speed, not a lot of reps, but everybody gets a chance. I went back and looked at the depth charts and there were a lot of guys ... that started out as 3’s on the depth chart — Rodney McLeod, Daren Bates, Ray Armstrong, Cody Davis — and now they’re starting for us.

“We just try to get everybody a couple of reps to check out any of the new guys that might give us some new blood.’’