The St. Louis Rams are not a good football team. They are not an average football team. They are a bad football team.
In previous weeks, we detailed plays by the Patriots and Dolphins that broke down after multiple players failed to execute properly. This week, we examine another example of how mass ineptitude turns a perfectly good play into a momentum-changing event, and completely takes a team out of the game with over 59 minutes remaining.
Last Sunday, the Rams marched into Lincoln Financial Field to face the Philadelphia Eagles. Still on their own 20-yard line after a touchback and three straight incompletions to start the game, St. Louis turned to their only reliable means of moving the ball – the punt team. Johnny Hekker, the Rams punter, trotted onto the field and put his heels on his own 6-yard line.
Hekker had a strong statistical year in 2013, ranking first in the league in net average at 44.2 yards per kick. While some might see this as evidence he had the best season among his peers, the only thing that this shows with any certainty is that Hekker had plenty of field in front of him when kicking last year. The Rams’ offense was ranked 30th in the league in total yardage, amassing only 304.8 yards per game in 2013.
In the above still, we see the Rams set up in a slight variation of a standard punt formation. Not pictured in the screen are the punt gunners on the outside of the formation. Some teams may bring the gunners in tight to the formation when backed up near their own end zone. This is known as a “punt max protect” formation, but is not utilized by the Rams here.
On the left side, they offset their “tight end” two yards back from the line of scrimmage, most likely because that they are punting from the left hash and are attempting to kick back to the other side of the field, as evidenced by the punter also being offset towards the right side of the formation. The tight end’s altered alignment creates a natural “pocket” for the punter. It also forces a defender to travel a longer path in order to get to the punter, as the blocker has inside position.
The Eagles initially line up in what appears to be a standard punt return formation, with six men on the line of scrimmage. However, prior to the snap, the two Eagles circled in red move from their original positions. One lines up on the line of scrimmage to the left side of the screen. The second heads off-screen to block the left punt gunner, and a different Eagles player comes in to replace him. This player also lines up on the line of scrimmage on the left side of the frame.
The still above shows the new formation after these changes have taken place. There are now eight Eagles on the line of scrimmage, indicating that they plan to bring pressure. Whether using a man blocking scheme or zone blocking scheme, the typical technique taught in punt protection is to block from the inside-out in order to push potential rushers away, creating a longer path and more time for the punter. Diagrammed above is what this should look like. Keep in mind that James Casey (#4, above) is unblocked by anyone on the line, allowing Chase Reynolds, the Rams personal protector (wearing jersey 34), to stay in the center of the formation and handle any potential pressure up the middle.
Responsibility for assigning protection falls on the personal protector, as he can survey the entire formation before the snap. The primary calls are whether the blocking scheme is man or zone, and which side to send the snapper ensuring all potential rushers are blocked. In this case, he calls for the long snapper to go to the right side, which is actually the correct call in order to make sure every Eagles rusher is matched up with a blocker. With eight blockers in formation and eight potential rushers, there should be no problem matching up with the proper man.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, the entire right side of their line decided to forget every single thing they had ever learned about punt protection. From the snap, we see a number of issues on the right side of the line. The first, and probably most important, is that the right guard immediately attacks the man to his left, who is also matched up with the long snapper. This means that there is now a free man coming from somewhere. That “somewhere” also happens to be right through the B-gap, as the other two men on the right side of the Rams formation block down on their targets, forcing them towards the middle of the formation. This also leaves what appears to be a free rusher coming from the outside.
Despite the failings of the right side of the line, the left side actually sets up very well. We can see the personal protector, Reynolds, starting to slide to the middle to pick up what he believes to be the only free man coming. At the same time, the other three players are beginning to work in an inside-out fashion towards their potential blocks.
As the play advances, we see that the left side of the formation has formed a perfect wall (indicated in blue), locking onto their blocks. This is textbook punt protection. Also in this viewscreen, you can see that the edge rusher from position #8 (far right) has been chipped by the Rams’ tight end, redirecting his path. While this blocker initially made the incorrect move (to his left), he recovered in time to get enough of a quick hit on the correct man, slowing his rush.
Reynolds, (the personal protector circled in blue), is preparing to engage with the unblocked Casey (#4 from second image above) . However, to the right of Reynolds, we can see the unblocked man from position #6 (Trey Burton) breaking through the line. He is a clear and present danger to the punter, making this a critical moment of decision for the Reynolds: Does he stay on his man, or does he break off to pick up the free rusher?
Chaos. Finding himself in a no-win situation, Reynolds has given up blocking his original man in an to attempt to pick up Burton, the unaccounted Eagles rusher from position #6. This leaves Casey (#4), his initial blocking assignment, completely free to the punter, which results in the kick being blocked.
The snap-to-kick time for this punt is between 1.81 and 1.95 seconds. Any punt that is off in less than 2 seconds should not be blocked if the protection team is doing its job. Thus, this fault for this block is not on the long snapper, the punter, or the personal protector. The blame falls squarely and collectively on the right side of the Rams line, which essentially executed everything wrong. The result?
Three Eagles are now in the best position to recover the blocked punt as most Rams special teamers start to head downfield in anticipation of a successful kick. The Eagles are able to easily scoop the ball and return it for a touchdown less than thirty seconds into the game.
This is why the Rams are a bad football team. It’s not because they make mistakes. Every team will fail at executing perfectly at some point in a football game. It is because they make mistakes that high school and college teams typically avoid making. It is difficult enough to succeed at those levels when plays like this occur. At the NFL level, plays like this are a major reason why the Rams are now 1-3 and expected to contend for the worst record in the league during the 2014 season.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.