“Bones” Fassel maintains strong special teams for Rams
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) John Fassel should have been celebrating when the Los Angeles Rams had their kicker, punter and return specialist voted in as Pro Bowl starters Tuesday. Instead, the special teams coordinator everyone calls ”Bones” was setting up tryouts with 12 kickers to replace Greg Zuerlein, who is out for the season with a back injury.
Fassel chose Sam Ficken, a Penn State product who has never kicked in an NFL regular-season game, in another test of whether the Rams can continue to thrive on special teams this season in spite of personnel changes, starting Sunday at the Tennessee Titans.
It hasn’t been as issue so far, as the analytics website Football Outsiders ranks the Rams as the second-best special teams unit in the league by their DVOA metric. The Rams are second in the NFL in yards per kick return, third in yards per punt return, second in net punting, and have come up with timely returns, stops and blocks despite turnover among their core special teams players.
Punter Johnny Hekker called it the most productive group he has been around, and Fassel couldn’t disagree.
”I’d have to go back and look at it statistically, but it feels like it,” Fassel said. ”It’s been fun to see a new group of young special teamers step up and make some plays, and I think so far we’ve been pretty good.”
A new crop of contributors has emerged, highlighted by second-year wide receiver Pharoh Cooper making the Pro Bowl as a return specialist. Cooper is averaging 28.2 yards per kick return, scoring a touchdown on a 103-yard kick return at Jacksonville, and 13.4 yards per punt return. Linebacker Cory Littleton, wide receiver Mike Thomas and defensive back Blake Countess have made their presence known. Even rookie wide receiver Josh Reynolds has become a factor despite coming in with limited experience playing on special teams.
”Like me, not doing special teams in college or high school, you kind of just think that everybody runs and do their thing,” Reynolds said. ?”Seeing all the technique and the fundamentals and stuff, it’s awesome.”
Fassel believes the variety of skills required on special teams can be easily overlooked, calling it ”unfathomable to the naked eye.” Blocking on a punt return is different than blocking on a kick return. The same is true of covering a kickoff versus covering a punt.
All of those traits will be needed to contain Titans cornerback Adoree Jackson, who established himself as one of the most dynamic return specialists in football during his college career at Southern California.
”He’s got super ball skills, and then he’s just a real elusive runner,” Fassel said.
Jackson can test Fassel’s group in a variety of ways, but they have shown the ability to come up with key plays that might get overlooked during the course of a game or a season. In the 42-7 win at Seattle on Sunday, Countess and Littleton combined to tackle Tyler Lockett at the Seahawks’ 16-yard line on the opening kickoff. That advantageous field position helped the defense to come away with an early takeaway, setting the tone for a dominant performance.
”All the guys on special teams have that mindset to make a play,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson said.
”Very, very selfless guys, too, that are willing to kind of deny themselves the offensive and defensive playing time, but know if they produce on special teams that good things will come to them. We’re the product of our environment and we work really hard to make sure we can impact this game in a positive impact for our team,” Hekker said.
After just a few days around Ficken, Fassel sees him fitting in well with the Rams’ culture on special teams. Whether that will translate to replacing the top scorer in the NFL after Zuerlein made 38 of 40 field goals this season is another matter, but the ever-upbeat Fassel likes the blank slate Ficken provides.
”He’s very poised,” Fassel said. ”But I’m really excited for him and what a great opportunity for him. I mean, you serious, like to come in with two weeks left and on a team that’s playing for an NFC West title? It’s good, but it’s not going to be too big for him. That’s the sense I get.”
NOTES: OLB Matt Longacre (back) will not play against the Titans. Longacre is third on the team with 5 1/2 sacks.
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