After watching yet another long return wiped out by penalty in the Minnesota game, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has adopted a gridiron version of the old bumper sticker: If you can read this, you’re probably too close.
“Right now, we’ve got to make sure if you see a name on the back of a jersey that you’re not making any contact whatsoever,” Fisher said.
After holding Minnesota to a three-and-out to start the third quarter, the Rams had excellent field position (the Minnesota 42) after a 35-yard punt return by Danny Amendola. But there was an illegal block in the back penalty against rookie Cory Harkey at the Rams’ 40. It was an obvious foul. After the penalty yardage was marked off, the Rams were backed up at their 30 for a net loss of 28 yards of field position.
“He was chasing and he was working, and the guy turned on him and he blocked him in the back,” special teams coordinator John Fassel said. “That was his third game, I think, he’s played in. It happens a lot. It’s not a rookie mistake, it’s just a mistake that happens a lot that we have to avoid.
“I’ve got to do a better job drilling some stuff in practice so we stay penalty-free, because we’ve had three big returns in the last couple weeks that have all been called back by penalty.”
In the third quarter of the Rams’ Nov. 11 overtime tie in San Francisco, a 62-yard punt return by Amendola was called back because of an illegal block in the back by Justin Cole. The Rams lost 67 yards of field position on that play.
One week later, a 98-yard kickoff return by Chris Givens against the New York Jets was negated by a holding call against Rodney McLeod. So instead of taking a 14-13 lead with 57 seconds left in the first half, the Rams remained down 13-7 and started the series on their 14.
The call against Cole was questionable; the one against McLeod was marginal. The location of both infractions probably wouldn’t have changed the end result of the play. But the flags were thrown.
Had the two Amendola returns counted, he would currently lead the NFC and rank fourth in the NFL in punt returns with a 12.4-yard average.
Had Givens’ 98-yarder counted, he would rank second in the NFC and eighth in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 27.4 average.
Instead, the Rams rank 31st in punt return average (6.8 yards) and 28th in kickoff return average (20.9 yards) in the NFL.
Fisher said the return game was discussed Monday following the latest problem against Minnesota.
“We’ve used different returners; that’s not the issue,” Fisher said. “It’s the help that they’re getting.”
Or in this case, lack of help.
“Our three biggest returns have been called back this year by penalty,” Fisher said. “And that doesn’t give you a chance.”
For an offense that has struggled to consistently move the football, the Rams are getting very little help from their return game in terms of field position. In terms of kickoffs, the Rams are ranked 27th in the NFL in average starting position — the 20.4-yard line. Part of that has to do with the opposing kicker, because 56.5 percent of kickoffs received by the Rams this season have resulted in touchbacks, the sixth-highest percentage in the league.
There have been some other leaks on special teams lately. Rookie punter Johnny Hekker has shanked some punts lately, and was roundly booed by the home fans after a 25-yarder in the third quarter against Minnesota.
“We’ve been working on it and he has had about one a game, I guess, the last couple games,” Fassel said. “In his defense, what we ask of him is pretty advanced punt work, especially for a rookie. We’re asking him to directional punt it but give us great distance, and there’s not a lot of punters in the league that can do both.
“There’s directional guys and then there’s big-leg guys. But there’s not a lot of combination guys. I guess Thomas Morstead for the Saints would be a rare guy that can do both. Johnny is a guy that can do both and he’ll continue to get better. We’ve just got to eliminate those one a game that just isn’t his best.”
As for rookie place-kicker Greg Zuerlein, he kicked like Superman early in the season but has made only six of 13 field goal attempts since making his first 15 of the season. In fairness to Zuerlein, five of those misses have been 52 yards or more — and four from 57 or longer.
“A 57-yard field goal for Greg is a 35-yard field goal,” Fassel said.
By that he meant that Zuerlein’s swing doesn’t change on his longer attempts.
“Obviously, the further you are away, the smaller the goal posts look, but the one in this past game (a 57-yarder), he just mis-hit it,” Fassel said. “That probably would’ve been missed from 35. We’ve asked a lot of him, too; we’ve asked a lot of deep kicks out of him.”
Even so, Fassel said the work of Hekker and Zuerlein this season has “exceeded my expectations from what we’ve asked of them, and there’s no doubt they’re just going to keep getting better. I think they have huge, tremendous futures in the league.”