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Rams' special teams are making strides ..
BY JIM THOMAS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
At the start of the 2009 season, it looked like there were going to be enough Rams special teams blunders to fill a reel of football follies.
— There was a lost fumble on the season-opening kickoff return by Donnie Avery in Seattle.
— A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown by Quincy Butler in that same game was negated by a penalty for having 12 men on the field.
— Anthony Smith's holding penalty wiped out a 92-yard kickoff return by Danny Amendola to open the San Francisco game.
— And the ultimate in muffed punts in that same ***** game, resulting in a San Francisco touchdown. (The ball struck Butler in the leg; he compounded the problem by trying to pick up the ball in the end zone.)
Rookie special teams coordinator Tom McMahon stayed the course, and the Rams' play has stabilized in this area. There's still plenty of room for improvement, but at the midpoint of the 2009 season, the Rams rank seventh in punt coverage and 13th in kickoff coverage in the NFL. They finished 22nd and 32nd, respectively, in those areas last season.
The improvement isn't as dramatic in the return game, where the Rams rank 17th in punt returns and 19th in kickoff returns. They finished 21st and 22nd, respectively, last year.
"Tom McMahon has been resilient and has been relentless in his pursuit to be detailed and to keep guys consistent," place-kicker Josh Brown said. "So he's never wavered. And that's a big part of it. ... He's constantly, constantly pushing and working. And that's a big deal."
In the return game, the goal is to get 10 yards on each punt return and reach the 30-yard line on each kickoff return.
"We're averaging eight yards a (punt) return," McMahon said. "We need those extra 2 yards. We call it a first down — we want to give the offense a first down on punt returns."
On kickoff returns, McMahon would settle for an average drive start on the 25-yard line.
"A 25.5 drive start puts you in the top 10 (in the NFL) and gives your offense a start and a chance," he said. "We're getting too many balls stopped at the 20-yard line, at the 19, the 22 here and there."
Even with penalties wiping out a couple of long returns, the signing of Amendola two games into the season has brought the return game back to respectability.
In the two games before Amendola's arrival, the Rams' average drive start after kickoff returns was the 20. In his six games returning kickoffs, it's the 25-yard line.
"The biggest thing I think he's brought is the guys believe in him — they just do," said McMahon, the Rams' ninth special teams coach since the move to St. Louis in 1995. "They flat-out believe in him because he believes in himself. And he's a tough kid. There's not a lot of kick returners in this league that are his size. You take a lot of hits, and he fights through it."
Amendola is listed at 5-11, 186, and that may be stretching it.
The bright spot so far has been the work of the coverage units, long a bane of Rams special teams units in St. Louis. The Rams haven't allowed a kickoff return longer than 33 yards or a punt return longer than 15 yards all season.
"We obviously want to be ranked at the top of the league," said linebacker Chris Chamberlain, who has a team-high 11 special teams tackles. "But our ultimate goal is to control field position. ... I feel like Tom's done a great job with us. He's brought a lot of techniques and a lot of teaching that some of us hadn't had."
On punt coverage, the Rams have yielded only 103 return yards in eight games. Last year in 16 games, they gave up 590 yards. McMahon has stressed more directional punting and pooch punting, and he praised Donnie Jones for making the adjustment.
"We have a directional punt called on every single (punt) other than if you're in the pooch area, and then you're trying to hang the ball up — and 'down' the ball," McMahon said. "To me, that's where he's improved the most from what I'd seen in the past. He's not getting the touchbacks he used to get."
Jones already has had 15 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. He had 20 such punts all last season.
As for Brown, he's finally getting to use his leg some after kicking only three extra points and one field goal in the Rams' first four games.
"I'm definitely not tired," he said. "I would definitely like a lot more attempts; I would like a lot more kickoff attempts. ... We haven't capitalized on all of our opportunities. As a field goal kicker and as a veteran, you never want to start off slow, and that's what we did."
But Brown does have a perfect passer rating — 158.3 — after throwing a TD pass on a fake field goal against Detroit.
Linebacker Dominic Douglas was promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice squad; cornerback Marcus Brown was added to the practice squad. ... For every ticket purchased this week for Sunday's New Orleans game, the Rams are donating one ticket to a member of the military. There were about 2,500 tickets available at the start of the week.
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