Analysts and coaches will always talk about winning the game in all three phases, offense, defense, and… tailgating? Special teams are an important area of the game that can drastically shift the final outcome. Last week against the Washington Redskins, Mulligan blocked a punt inside our 35 yard line, which resulted in a quick touchdown moments later in the game. Last year, the Rams played an epic game against the Arizona Cardinals, one that was lost in overtime by a Patrick Peterson punt return for a touchdown. The special teams units are undervalued for their contributions on the field, aside from highlight reel plays. However, dominating in this phase of the game can be the difference between a win and a loss at the end of the day, especially in close battles on the football field. Punting units and returners are in charge of the field position game, and most franchise’s all-time leader in points will be a long-time kicker for the organization. Neither the St. Louis Rams, nor the Chicago Bears have the advantage right now, currently ranked at 3-3-2 after a breakdown of all the positions on offense and defense. Who will take the cake with their special teams play?
Johnny Hekker is one of the three young players making up the St. Louis kicking trio. He was picked up as an UDFA, and immediately took over the starting job. Hekker had a tough start to the season, fumbling his first snap, although he got a lucky bounce and was able to get the ball away for a sizable kick. Against Detroit, the coverage unit allowed an astounding 10 yards per return on punting. However, against Washington, the punt returners only attempted to run back one of Hekker’s kicks, which resulted in a 3 yards loss. Hekker himself averaged 54.3 yards per punt with no return, including a 66 yarder that got him nominated for a Weekly Award by the NFL. Adam Poldesh is the Bears’ sixth year punter, who has gotten plenty of work so far this season. He already has racked up 11 punts in two games, for 489 yards. Only four of those have been returned, although two of those were relatively lengthy returns against the Green Bay Packers. Poldesh has twice as many touchbacks and half as many kicks landing inside of the 20 yardline as Hekker, and the Rams punter seems to be getting more confident with every game. Both teams may have to employ a heavy dose of punter in Sunday’s matchup, but it appears as though the Rams have the slight edge in this slot.
Advantage: St. Louis Rams, 4-3-2
St. Louis is still trying to figure out who they want returning the ball on punts and kickoffs. To start the season, St. Louis had rookie tailback Isaiah Pead taking them out of the endzone. However, they seem to be going back and forth between him and fellow rookie Chris Givens, although both have had limited success. In the punt return game, Danny Amendola has taken most of the responsibility. At first it seems odd that they would want their all-star wide receiver to be taking valuable hits in the return game, but so far it has made sense. After a couple of catastrophic muffed punts from Greg Salas last year, the Rams needed a confident, sure-handed receiver back to take the kicks. A majority of the punts he has seen are either fair catches inside the 30 yard line, or wide open returns where he can slide out of bounds before getting hammered. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been effective though, returning 5 punts so far this season for a average of 7 yards, including a 22 yarder.
However, Chicago Bears have one of the all-time greatest returner in the NFL, with Devin Hester returning both punts and kickoffs. His role his been diminished with the kickoff rule changes in 2011, but has still been relatively productive so far in the season. Hester is averaging 26.5 yards per return on kickoff and 10.3 yards on punt return. Those numbers do not tell the full story though. Special teams units game plan around kicking the ball to Hester, sometime sacrificing additional punting yards to ensure that the ball gets out of bounds so that he will not have the opportunity to return the ball. Hester is a back that can change the game with his returns and, until dethroned, is still the best return man in football.
Advantage: Chicago Bears, 4-4-2
In St. Louis, Greg Zuerlein is one of the most popular players on the team, which is surprising given that he is a kicker. One of the big stories of the off season was the Rams front office telling the team to go out and find the best kicker in college coming into the 2012 draft. They ended up choosing the NCAA record-breaking kicker from Missouri Western State, who was 9 for 9 his senior year in 50+ yard field goals. During training camp and preseason, Zuerlein was rocketing kicks for 55+ and 60+ yards easily through the uprights. During the season, he has yet to try from 50+, but has been perfect on all 6 of his field goal tries from a shorter distance. Greg ‘the Leg,” as he is calling in Rams Camp, is 3 for 3 from 40+, 2 for 2 from 30-49, and 1 for 1 from 20-29 yards. Even more impressive, he is sending balls deep on kickoff, with the 6 attempted returns averaging only 12.0 yards, and only one return past the 20 yard line.
Robbie Gould has has similar success in both field goals and kickoffs, although the Bear’s offense has not sent him onto the field as much as they would have liked (i.e. kickoffs after touchdowns or field goals, as a result of interceptions). Gould is 3 for 3 on field goals, knocking one through from all three distances under 50 yards. Last year, Gould was impressive from 50+, hitting 6 out of 6 shots from long distance. However, Gould was only 6 for 10 from 40-49 yards, ending the year with a 87.5 overall percentage kicking field goals. Zuerlein has a very limited sample in the NFL, but currently holds the NCAA record for consecutive field goals (21), lead Division-II twice in touchbacks, and hold the school record for distance after successfully kicking a 58 yard field goal… twice. Zuerlein has yet to make a mistake in the NFL, and shown the ability to chip the ball through the uprights from nearly any distance.
Advantage: St. Louis Rams, 5-4-2
In the end, the rookies from St. Louis take the gold in the kicking game, while Devin Hester clearly has the advantage returning the ball. The final tally puts St. Louis at a slight advantage over Chicago in position-by-position comparisons, although several of the advantages could easily swing in another direction. When it boils down to it, the teams are fairly even in nearly all three phases of the game. This should make for a great game on Sunday when the Rams visit the Bears at home for Week 3. If you didn’t get a chance to check out the break downs of the offense or defense, you can check them out by clicking on the following links: