Rams need to return to glory on special teams if they’re to be super
After eight seasons of relative stability and performance — sometimes at league-leading levels — Rams special teams took a major step backward in 2020.
Longtime coordinator John Fassel left for the Dallas Cowboys, and coach Sean McVay tried to fill the void with John Bonamego. The Rams went through two kickers before they signed Matt Gay, who performed consistently the rest of the way. Veteran punter Johnny Hekker, a four-time All-Pro, posted the lowest average of his career. And the kickoff and punt return units displayed no big-play capability.
The Rams go into their Sunday night opener against the Chicago Bears as one of the favorites to reach Super Bowl LVI, which will be played at SoFi Stadium.
But the Rams could fall short of that goal if special teams do not improve from a year ago.
McVay demoted Bonamego and hired Joe DeCamillis, who coordinated special teams for the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars. Dwayne Stukes is the special teams assistant.
“Guys that have a ton of passion and fire for game and are really demanding,” Hekker said. “Guys that aren’t afraid to call a spade a spade. They’re going to put is in good positions and utilize the things we’re good at, but they’re also going to be really quick to get on you for the things that you need to improve on.”
Hekker, 31, has acknowledged that improvement starts with him.
Hekker is attempting to rebound after averaging a career-low 45.6 yards per punt last season. Hekker, sidelined the last two preseason games because of COVID-19, agreed to restructure his contract — he was the NFL’s highest-paid punter — helping him survive a training camp competition with Corey Bojorquez.
Matthew Orzech is the new long snapper, replacing Jake McQuade, who joined Fassel and former Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein with the Cowboys.
Until Gay stabilized the field-goal, extra-point and kickoff units in the last seven games in 2020, the Rams’ decision not to re-sign Zuerlein appeared to be a major error.
The Rams started the season with rookie Samuel Sloman, but McVay’s patience wore thin after opponents blocked several low-trajectory kicks. The Rams released Sloman after seven games and signed veteran Kai Forbath, but they released Forbath after two games.
Gay signed with the Rams days before they played his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gay made two of three field-goal attempts in a 27-24 victory over the eventual Super Bowl champions and proved reliable the rest of the season. He made 14 of 16 field-goal attempts.
“Feeling a little more settled,” Gay told reporters during training camp. “A year with the team, a year under the belt, last year was kind of crazy.”
The Rams’ kick-return units probably will be works in progress.
“We’ve got to get a guy that can ring the bell and drop the ball over the goal line,” DeCamillis said after he was hired.
Nsimba Webster was released in July, seemingly setting up a competition between running back Raymond Calais and rookie receiver Tutu Atwell. But Calais suffered a season-ending foot injury in the second preseason game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Atwell returned only four punts during his college career at Louisville. Receiver Cooper Kupp has returned punts, but he is coming off the second knee injury of his NFL career.
Veteran receiver DeSean Jackson returned punts early in his career, and sometimes was inserted in key moments, but after playing only eight games for the Philadelphia Eagles the last two seasons because of injuries the Rams are loath to expose the 34-year-old Jackson to extra contact. He was hurt on a punt return last season.
Running back Darrell Henderson returned three kickoffs in 2019, but he had season-ending ankle surgeries in 2019 and 2020 so they probably will shy away from exposing him to more hits on special teams.
Defensive back J.R. Reed and practice squad running back Otis Anderson returned kicks during the preseason. McVay also could turn to rookie running back Jake Funk, who returned kicks in college at Maryland.
Funk is one of several rookies expected to play prominent roles on coverage units.
Linebacker Ernest Jones, cornerback Robert Rochell, tight end Jacob Harris and receiver Ben Skowronek were drafted with an eye toward contributing immediately as a special teams players.