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Thread: Special teams not so special
Special teams not so special
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
2004: The Rams were 31st in punt coverage and 31st in kickoff returns among the NFL's 32 teams.
2005: Special teams failures last week against the ***** leave many wondering if the Rams are improved.
The mission was both simple and ambitious for the Rams' special teams unit Sunday in San Francisco.
"We wanted to come out and set the tone that this is going to be one of the top-notch special teams in the league," safety Mike Furrey said.
It began with Chris Johnson stepping out of bounds on the 1 on the opening kickoff, followed by a 40-yard kickoff return by San Francisco's Maurice Hooks, Otis Amey's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown and a successful onside kick by ***** place-kicker Joe Nedney. Oops!
All of which took place a mere 1 1/2 quarters into the game.
"It wasn't the debut that we had envisioned," special teams coach Bob Ligashesky said Thursday. "But any time something like that happens, obviously, you can't wait for your next opportunity to play."
Opportunity knocks Sunday at Sun Devil Stadium against the Arizona Cardinals.
This year was supposed to be different. Coach Mike Martz not only hired the young, energetic Ligashesky to run special teams, but he also hired an assistant for Ligashesky, Charles Bankins.
Whether it was via the draft or through signing low-cost free agents, the Rams added players with an eye toward improving special teams. They appear to be spending more time on the practice field than ever before under Martz on special teams.
But despite this newfound - and some might say - overdue emphasis on special teams, the results looked too familiar against the *****. It looked very much like the same special teams unit that ranked:
Last in 2003, and 30th in 2004 in punt coverage in the 32-team NFL.
Thirtieth or lower in kickoff coverage in four of the past five seasons.
Thirty-first in kickoff returns last season.
Thirty-first in punt returns a year ago.
The rocky start against the ***** prompted cries of "here we go again" throughout Rams Nation.
"That's part of being a special teams coach," Ligashesky said. "One thing you know is that nothing ever is going to go 100 percent your way. You could have 28 plays of special teams, and if one play doesn't go your way, that's the play that's going to stay with you. So, I knew what I was coming into, and accepted it with open arms."
One week into the season, Martz remains convinced things will work out with Ligashesky and with special teams.
"I'm very confident, the rest of the year, that this is going to work fine," Martz said. "This guy that's coaching the special teams is outstanding. He's very superior. I truly, sincerely, mean it."
Martz couldn't say the same thing about some of the special teams performers.
"We've got some young guys that need to step up that haven't," Martz said. "We trusted them in a vital role, and they didn't play well. We'll replace them with some veterans if we have to. But doggone it, that's their role. That's their job. I don't care who's coaching them or what team they're on. They've got to step up and make plays."
Look for a few changes on coverage units and in the return game against Arizona. Those changes won't involve Johnson on kickoff returns.
"He just got here," Martz said. "We've just got to work with him a little bit. If we didn't feel confident with Chris, obviously, we wouldn't leave him back in there, which we are. We're going to stick with him. ... I think he's kind of an impact talent."
Martz also says he remains confident in rookie punter Reggie Hodges, who averaged a mere 33 yards on four kicks against San Francisco.
"Oh yeah," Martz said. "He'll be fine. He's got to work through that."
But the NFL remains a week-to-week business. A vote of confidence today could turn into pink slip tomorrow.
Some of the rookies now realize that the speed of the game is much faster in the regular season than in the preseason. It's a lesson they learned the hard way chasing ***** on special teams.
"You can talk all you want about it until you go out there and realize what it's really all about, especially on (opening) weekend," Furrey said. "But it's something that you experience, and our goal is to never let it happen again."
Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe was one of those rookies who struggled on special teams in San Francisco. On kickoff coverage, Atogwe was responsible for keeping Hicks from breaking outside, but that's exactly what happened on the 40-yard kickoff return.
"I took a bad angle to the ball and lost my 'contain,' " Atogwe said.
That allowed Hicks to outflank the Rams on their right.
On the *****' onside kick, Atogwe and second-year linebacker Brandon Chillar got caught turning downfield to block. Atogwe nearly got to the bloop kick.
"It was a tough play," Atogwe said. "They kind of caught us in a bind, caught us in a weak spot. I tried to do the best I could do on that play."
On Amey's punt return for a touchdown, several Rams had a chance to make a play but didn't. Furrey was first on the scene but arrived a little off-balance and got caught a little inside.
Next came Anthony Hargrove, who got a hand on Amey at the 30 - 5 yards after he fielded the ball - but not enough to even knock him off-balance. Hargrove got undercut just as he was getting to Amey.
"I take most of that blame myself on that return," Hargrove said. "It's a play I should've made."
Arlen Harris and Corey Ivy also were in position to bring down Amey before he really got loose. But both were brought down by questionable blocks that could've been ruled penalties. Harris was hit from the side by Keith Lewis of the ***** and went tumbling. Ivy got pounded in the back in a scrum of players.
"That kind of stuff happens all the time," Ligashesky shrugged. "If you've been around special teams long enough, you know sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. It's unfortunate that it didn't go our way at that time. But there's nothing you can do about it. You've just got to keep playing hard."
Rams special teamers insist that's just what they'll keep doing.
"Coach Lig prepares us as well - if not better - as anybody that was here before," said long snapper Chris Massey, who's on his third special teams coach in three years. "We've just got to take care of the little things in the game. Staying in our coverage lanes. Squeezing to the ball. I think we'll have a real good unit this year; much improved from the last couple years."
Hargrove agreed, saying: "Coach Lig has got a good system. Once everybody adapts to it, and gets it, we'll be fine. We're not nearly as bad as we were last year."
Seeing will be believing.
Special teams scoring
Since Mike Martz became head coach in 2000, the Rams have allowed 16 touchdowns on special teams, while scoring only four:
Opposing teams' TDs
Otis Amey, 75-yard punt return - San Francisco, Sept. 11, 2005
Allen Rossum, 68-yard punt return - Atlanta, Jan. 15, 2005*
Jerricho Cotchery, 94-yard kickoff return - NY Jets, Jan. 2, 2005
Nate Clements, 86-yard punt return - Buffalo, Nov. 21, 2004
Troy Brown, 4-yard reception on fake field goal - New England, Nov. 7, 2004
R.W. McQuarters, 60-yard punt return - Chicago, Nov. 16, 2003
Cedrick Wilson, 95-yard kickoff return - San Francisco, Nov. 2, 2003
Antwaan Randle El, 84-yard punt return - Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 2003
Josh Scobey, 100-yard kickoff return - Arizona, Sept. 28, 2003
Orlando Huff, fumble recovery of muffed punt in end zone - Seattle, Sept. 21, 2003
Dante Hall, 88-yard kickoff return - Kansas City, Dec. 8, 2002
Dante Hall, 86-yard punt return - Kansas City, Dec. 8, 2002
Maurice Morris, 97-yard kickoff return - Seattle, Oct. 20, 2002
Darrick Vaughn, 96-yard kickoff return - Atlanta, Jan. 6, 2002
Steve Smith, 99-yard kickoff return - Carolina, Nov. 11, 2001
Mike Cloud, 6-yard return of blocked punt - Kansas City, Oct. 22, 2000
Dre' Bly, 78-yard punt return - Arizona, Dec. 15, 2002
Dexter McCleon, 29-yard return of fumbled field-goal snap - Carolina, Dec. 23, 2001
Tony Horne, 103-yard kickoff return - Atlanta, Oct. 15, 2000
Az-Zahir Hakim, 86-yard punt return - Denver, Sept. 8, 2000
Re: Special teams not so specialArlen Harris and Corey Ivy also were in position to bring down Amey before he really got loose. But both were brought down by questionable blocks that could've been ruled penalties. Harris was hit from the side by Keith Lewis of the ***** and went tumbling. Ivy got pounded in the back in a scrum of players.
"That kind of stuff happens all the time," Ligashesky shrugged. "If you've been around special teams long enough, you know sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. It's unfortunate that it didn't go our way at that time. But there's nothing you can do about it. You've just got to keep playing hard."[SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]