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  1. #1
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    Special Teams Hoping for Breakthrough

    Thursday, May 5, 2005

    By Nick Wagoner
    Staff Writer

    Since the Rams won the Super Bowl in 1999, they have been known around the NFL for having one of the league’s most dominant offenses. The first things that come to mind when someone mentions the Rams are points, point and more points.

    While that reputation is deserved based on the production of the offense under coach Mike Martz there is still a nasty side of the team’s performance that has been just as consistent, special teams.

    That consistency has been a bad thing considering the way those units have played in recent seasons. Last year, the group hit an all-time low, ranking last in the league in kickoff return defense, next to last in punt and kick returns and second to last in punt coverage.

    Those failures led Martz to the realization that something had to change and it had to change fast.

    "That's a mistake I've made in the past when we've gone after defensive players," Martz said. "We've spent so much time looking for ability only on defense, but really didn't go into the next phase of that. You have to be equally significant on special teams. We made an issue of it this year both in free agency and the draft. So hopefully, we'll make a quantum leap."

    The changes did indeed come fast. Nearly every player the Rams signed in free agency is capable of contributing in some way on special teams. Almost every player the team drafted also has special teams abilities.

    The Rams hope that a unit that was once a major weakness will become strength. The special teams makeover wasn’t limited to personnel changes, either. Coach Mike Stock became the third special teams coach to lose his job since Martz became head coach.

    Hoping to add intensity and youth to the coaching position, the Rams hired Bob Ligashesky on January 21. Ligashesky was the assistant special teams coach for Jacksonville last season and has 20 years of coaching experience. With Ligashesky’s help, the Jaguars had one of the best special teams units in the league last year.

    The coaching changes didn’t end there. In a perfect example of just how dire the special teams situation was last year, the Rams didn’t hire just one special teams coach, but two.

    St. Louis hired Charles Bankins as assistant special teams coach on February 17. Bankins comes to the Rams from Hampton University, where he was the running backs coach from 2000-2004. The commitment to special teams started with the two coaches, but as the previous three coaches proved, there is only so much you can do when you aren’t on the field.

    With that in mind, the Rams signed a number of players that can contribute as much to the special teams as they can to the defense. Heading that list is former Arizona Cardinal Michael Stone.

    Stone was the team’s top target for the secondary in part because of his special teams skills. He made 17 specials teams stops last season while playing in all four phases of special teams.

    “I like special teams and that’s what I played with the Cardinals so I hope to come in and make an immediate impact there,” Stone said. “You have to give 100 percent effort the whole play because special teams is definitely a place where you can outwork somebody and make a play. I think that’s one of my strong points.”

    Not long after Stone signed, St. Louis added a similar player with similar talents in former Packer Michael Hawthorne. Hawthorne, like Stone, can play safety or cornerback, but is just as known for his special teams coverage skills. He led Green Bay in special teams tackles with 19.

    The Rams added two more special teams contributors last week, signing defensive backs Corey Ivy and Terry Fair. Fair earned a reputation early in his career for being an excellent return man and Ivy has been a dynamo in kick coverage for Tampa Bay. Linebacker Dexter Coakley has also been a good special teams player throughout his career.

    Two additions to the unit will come from within. Mike Furrey, who was the team’s sixth receiver last season, has generally been considered one of the team’s best special teams players. But because of his position, it has been hard to keep him on the active roster on Sundays. In an effort to get him on the field, the Rams moved Furrey to safety where he has a better chance of being active.

    Furrey has always enjoyed special teams and said he had an understanding of it early in his career.

    “Anybody that comes into the league has not really been playing too much specials because they were a star player in college,” Furrey said. “It’s something they have to transition to. I kind of picked it up and started to have a lot of fun with it. It’s good to be out there and just kind of be free and start attacking people on punts and kickoffs.”

    Also, cornerback DeJuan Groce appears to be headed back to taking over punt return duties. Groce was an excellent returner at Nebraska, averaging 15.6 yards per return and taking five punts back for touchdowns. Those exploits earned him All-American honors as a return specialist his senior season.

    Groce had 19 opportunities in 2003 to keep the return job, but struggled to hold on to the ball and averaged just 7.1 yards per return. But with the apparent improvement to all of the special teams units, Groce should have better blocking than he did in his first go-round.

    “He had such terrific numbers coming out of college, we'll give him every opportunity," Martz said.

    While those additions might seem to be enough to make a difference, the Rams continued to add depth through the NFL Draft. Every player the team drafted, with the possible exception of the offensive linemen, have some sort of special teams experience and will be asked to contribute on teams right away.

    Defensive backs Ronald Bartell, Jerome Carter and Oshiomogho Atogwe played special teams in college and made an impact. Perhaps the two most exciting possibilities to make their presence felt on special teams right away are tight end Jerome Collins and fullback Madison Hedge****.

    Both of those players have shown great desire to make a big hit in coverage units. Collins, in particular, was a special teams dynamo for Notre Dame. He stood out in coverage units so much on tape that tight ends coach Frank Falks used that tape to convince the coaching staff of Collins’ worth. It was convincing enough not only to draft Collins in the fifth round, but also for the team to trade up to get him.

    Adding more to the mix is punter Reggie Hodges, who the Rams chose in the sixth round. Hodges should compete with incumbent Kevin Stemke throughout training camp for the punting job.

    The influx of young talent that can contribute on special teams has Ligashesky champing at the bit to get his coverage and return units going.

    “I am extremely excited,” Ligashesky said. “If you watch those guys and the way they run around and the way they play the open field and the passion in which they play…I look forward to those guys contributing to special teams.”

  2. #2
    maineram Guest

    Re: Special Teams Hoping for Breakthrough

    Ligashesky must be thinking he's died and gone to heaven. What more could a new ST coach want than to step into a situation where a team is in dire straights, make a point of bringing in guys and the right type of talent to excel. Not all of these additions will make the team, but even the ones who will have a major role to play. A starter on ST.

    Maineram - :ramlogo:

  3. #3
    psycho9985 Guest

    Re: Special Teams Hoping for Breakthrough

    I still dont trust Martz as far as special teams goes.....hes gonna have to earn that trust.I worry that some of the guys might start showing starter talent for offence or defence and he'll pull'em off special teams,now that might happen anyway because of injuries,more so if the turf isnt changed.:ramlogo:

  4. #4
    majorram's Avatar
    majorram is offline Registered User
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    London surrey
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    Re: Special Teams Hoping for Breakthrough

    Its' encouraging reading!!!!, the only way for our ST is up!!!! and I think we may just have the players to lets say make a "TACKLE" :redface: this time...

    steve :ramlogo:


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