It’s that time of year again, when most NFL fans focus on offense, defense and even the upcoming schedule. The third and frequently forgotten phase of the game, however, is arguably its most important: special teams. Countless games come down to blocking, kicking and coverage. In fact, special teams will account for roughly 35 percent of a squad’s scoring output during the year – second only to the offense.
At Rams Park, Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein are constantly visible. Like offense and defense, though, the success of all punts, field goals and extra points hinge on the line of scrimmage at the snap. St. Louis long snapper Jake McQuaide may well be the most valuable member of his unit and, at the very least, he is the group’s unsung hero.
Yes, the offense scores points. It can offer an all-out aerial assault or grind the clock with a ball-control running game. Then you have the old “defense wins championships” motto. But special teams continues to garner less respect than the other two phases of pro football. Even the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning bunch of a year ago relied heavily on its special teams. The Seattle defense’s ability to control the line of scrimmage against the run, squeeze the pocket vs. the pocket, creative turnovers and win the takeaway battle perfectly complemented the special teams’ own knack for gaining great field position.
Teams must be consistent and opportunistic on special teams, and it starts during OTAs. Mastering the little things (which aren’t so little) such as stance, alignment, blocking and tackling technique is crucial, while returners work on securing punts and kickoffs. There’s so much hidden value to be found here, which can change the outcome of a contest in an instant. In this league, especially in this division, precision is crucial. You’re not going to beat Seattle or San Francisco with a weak special teams game.
NFL teams play 16 games per regular season. Candidly, they count on their special teams units to win four or more of those games through scoreboard contributions in the way of field goals and extra points. While these are not automatic, they can and do play a crucial role in the difference between winning and losing. Pinning an opponent’s offense deep in its own territory is critical to winning field position, too, and blocking a punt definitely requires a well-coached plan and a skillful play carried out by core special teams players.
Rams special teams coach John Fassel does an exceptional job of developing his young talent and core players in Wide receiver Stedman Bailey, defensive backs Brandon McGee and Cody Davis, linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates, and running back Chase Reynolds were standouts in 2013. Several newcomers, including rookies Michael Sam,Lamarcus Joyner and Mo Alexander, will look to make an impact this fall.
In the return game, expect Tavon Austin to serve as the primary guy once again. The second-year West Virginia product will be joined by fellow wide receivers Austin Pettis, Justin Veltung, Diontae Spencer and running back Trey Watts.