LA Rams special teams needs some immediate attention

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

LA Rams special teams need some immediate attention

The LA Rams have been making progress on defense and offense. But the team seems to be grading special teams on a curve so far. After all, the interest in a new kicker, at least from the information we had gathered, was to find a player who could connect on 40. With a quarter of the season to go, the Rams have yet to connect on a field goal beyond 39 yards.  Perhaps that is not the worst of it.

We know that the LA Rams have a star punter in Johnny Hekker. He can add 10 or more yards in field position alone if the Rams exchange punts with an opponent. But after four weeks, even he cannot help the team’s overall ranking.  After four games, Football Outsiders ranks the LA Rams special teams as 31st in the NFL. Over the same time span, Lineups ranks the LA Rams special teams as the 27th unit in the NFL.

The graph pretty much says it all.

Too soon to say that I was hoping for more?

For this analysis, I will focus on because their breakdown is relatively straight-forward. For now, any aspect of the Rams special teams unit that falls at 20 or lower on the Lineups matrix will be our focus.  With 25 percent of the season completed, the LA Rams struggle at field goal accuracy (25th) and the related field goals made (21st), opponents kickoff returns (20th), opponents kickoff return yardage (27th), punt returns (26th), kick returns (21st) and the related punts net average (26th).

So we can break this up into field goals, kick coverages, and kick returns.   So where to start? Well, let’s start with a bright spot. We know that the Rams have one of the best punters in the NFL. But there is some concern even with the best punter in the NFL. Right now, the LA Rams average 51.8 yards for each punt, good enough for second place in the NFL. But looking more closely, some areas of concern start to creep in.  The Rams 46.8 net yards per punt drop them to the fourth-ranked team in the NFL.

The dark side of Rams coverage

The Rams have punted into the end zone three times, good for third-best in the NFL.  But, the Rams have only downed three punts within their opponents 20-yard line, good for tied at 25th in the NFL But with a punter like Johnny Hekker, the real power is forcing the opponents to fair catch his punts.  So far, that has only happened twice, placing the Rams at 27th place in that category. And finally, the Rams allow 12.5 yards per punt return, which places them at 27th in the league.

That’s just the first area of concern, and by all impressions, the Rams punting unit is the best of the special teams’ bunch.  It is just as bad for the kickoff coverage.  And just as bad, if not worse for the return game. Rather than a team with a fundamentally sound plan, the team is four weeks into the season and the Rams still appear to be experimenting with much of the return game.

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Enigmatic kicker

The LA Rams appeared to be holding a fair and objective competition to determine who would earn the kicker role for the team. In two scrimmages, the LA Rams had decent enough performance out of Liram Hajrullahu and Austin MacGinnis. In each contest, drafted kicker Sam Sloman statistically came in third place out of the three competitors. But in some closed-door office, a decision was made to stick with kicker Sam Sloman.

Now don’t get me wrong. I want Sloman to succeed. But folks, so far? He is bouncing on the bottom of the NFL kicker rankings for accuracy and distance. His 71.4 percent accuracy is tied for 24th in the NFL.  But his 0-1 at 40+ yards is second-worst in the NFL.  Only Buffalo’s 0-0 is on par because they never attempted a kick from that distance.  The Chicago Bears are the worst, with a 0-2 record at 40+ yards. The trade-off for kickers with shorter ranges is better accuracy. The Rams do not even have that going for them. The lone bright spot for the Rams is that the 91.7 percent accuracy for extra points is good enough for 22nd best in the NFL.

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The point is not to sound panicky or alarmist. Simply to highlight an area of the LA Rams team that is considered vulnerable right now, in hopes that the team emphasizes extra work to improve coverages and returns.