Last year: New faces were common in St. Louis Rams special teams meetings last season. The coach (John Fassel), the kicker (Greg Zuerlein) and the punter (John Hekker) all experienced their first year as Rams. The result? Some memorable moments, like the 58- and 60-yard bombs Zuerlein sent through the uprights against Seattle. But, as a whole, the Rams have plenty of room for improvement in 2013.
Coach: Fassel, 39, is the son of former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel. Before joining Jeff Fisher’s staff last season, he served as the special teams coordinator for the Oakland Raiders.
1. Will Austin be an X-factor?
The Rams averaged 21 yards per punt return in 2012, which placed them 26th in the 32-team league. No Ram took a punt past 50 yards, and no punt return reached an end zone. Even worse was the team’s execution on kickoff returns. St. Louis averaged a measly 6.6 yards per return in 2012, second-worst in the NFL, and failed to take a kickoff to the house.
The hope is that Tavon Austin, the versatile and speedy rookie out of West Virginia, changes these hard-to-swallow numbers. On the night he was drafted eighth overall by the Rams, Austin mentioned having an impact in the return game. He showed promise during organized team activities, catching punts one-handed during drills and burning up the sidelines during no-contact scrimmages.
For St. Louis, his help can’t come soon enough.
2. Can Zuerlein be more consistent?
Sixth-round draft pick Greg Zuerlein quickly became a fan favorite last season. A rookie who doesn’t bat an eyelash at attempting 13 field goals of 50-plus yards (three more than any other NFL kicker) deserves the attention. But the 25-year-old will be the first to tell you he needs to be more consistent.
“It was probably the worst year I ever had,” he said recently, reflecting on making 23 of 31 kicks.
Kicks of 50-plus yards are generally a crapshoot. Zuerlein should look to lock down his shorter tries. Three of his eight misses came from 30-39 yards, a range that should be nearly automatic for “Greg the Leg.”
3. Will Ogletree be a force in the kick-blocking game?
St. Louis totaled two blocks last year. One came via Janoris Jenkins, who swatted a 26-yard field goal attempt by the New York Jets. The other belonged to Matt Mulligan, who got a hand on a Washington Redskins punt before relocating to the Green Bay Packers this offseason.
Part of the excitement that surrounds rookie outside linebacker Alec Ogletree is the athleticism he can bring to kick-blocking scenarios. When Sports Illustrated writer Peter King sat in with the Rams during the NFL Draft, he witnessed this conversation between the team’s linebackers coach, Frank Bush, and Fassel.
“Can I have Ogletree for punt blocks?” Fassel asked.
“Yeah, he blocked six punts in college,” Bush said. “He’s great at it.”
While Ogletree’s official college stats mention only one blocked punt during his Georgia days, the point is this: He is a force on special teams. If he doesn’t block a kick or punt as a rookie, he should at least be able to provide pressure and open a lane for one of his teammates. The Rams should have more than two blocked kicks this year.
Quote: “Last year, I missed too many, I felt. They gave me plenty of opportunities. I just didn’t pull through. That’s something I want to eliminate.” — Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein to FOXSportsMidwest.com
Bottom line: The most recognizable faces on the Rams’ special teams were both rookies last year. The kicker and punter are back with more experience, and that should mean improvement. Meanwhile, the addition of dynamic rookies Austin and Ogletree should boost both return numbers and the pressure the Rams bring on the other end.