2016 has been a challenging year for the Los Angeles Rams in their first year back on the West Coast. Currently standing at 4-10, the Rams have faced significant challenges on offense and defense; however, their special teams have been above-average due to the outstanding play of punter Johnny Hekker, the improved consistency of kicker Greg Zuerlein, and the creative scheming from special teams coordinator John Fassel, who recently took over as interim head coach following Jeff Fisher’s firing. Fassel was the man behind the then-St. Louis Rams fake punt return from 2014, and on this play from Week 14, he continues to show a strong grasp of special teams schemes that significantly improve the Rams field position.
Facing the Atlanta Falcons with 5:58 remaining in the second quarter, the Rams force a punt from the Falcons 23-yard line. Falcons punter Matt Bosher, possessing one of the stronger legs in the NFL, lines up 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage:
The Rams show just six men near the line of scrimmage, with only five actually in three point-stances on the line, indicating they are doubling both gunners and looking to prioritize a return over pressuring Bosher. Punt units need to be intensely aware of what a return team is trying to accomplish in order to avoid falling into a trap on the most chaotic play in football. At the snap, the initial suspicions are confirmed as Los Angeles only rushes four men:
Backup running back Malcolm Brown (#39, blue circle) takes off to the right of the frame to triple-team the right gunner. This is a key early sign that the Rams are looking to bring the ball in this direction, as they are dedicating 30% of their potential blockers to sealing off one man early in the play. While Bosher and the Falcons cannot adjust their punt strategy at this point, it is something the Falcons coverage unit must make a mental note of, and attempt to keep in their minds as they sprint 50 yards downfield dodging blockers left and right for the next six to eight seconds. Yikes.
Also dropping away from the line of scrimmage is Chase Reynolds (#34, green circle), who retreats up the middle of the field to provide additional blocking as well. With only four men rushing Bosher he has a clean pocket to get away a strong punt with no interference.
Just after Bosher booms the ball away, the scene becomes somewhat muddled:
On the right side of the frame, the triple-teamed right gunner, C.J. Goodwin (#29), is finding no room to get downfield as he struggles to get out of grasp of his blockers. Score one for the Rams so far. But on the left side of the field something that initially appears puzzling is happening. The Los Angeles double-team (green circles) has given the left gunner (Aldrick Robinson, red circle) a free inside release, allowing him to get up the left hash cleanly, moving towards the right side of the field. Why would they do this if the intention is to return the ball to the right side of the frame?
The answer is that this is likely equivalent to the confusion an offense tries to create when running a screen play. A successful screen requires offensive linemen to allow defenders to get into the backfield at a controlled pace in order to open up space just behind them. In theory, their instincts to pressure the quarterback will overwhelm their ability to recognize the play until it is too late. The principle is similar here – gunners are taught to always try to get butt-side of a block if being forced one way, it is the first instinct drilled into them by many special teams coaches. By giving a free inside release, the Rams set the trap for that instinct to come into play later on.
As the ball continues downfield, the return setup continues:
On the right side of the frame, the triple-team and two other blockers begin setting up a wall along the right hash (blue arrows). This is where the return will eventually come. At the same time, the Robinson (red arrow) takes the bait completely, and tries to go hard butt-side to get back to the left of the frame. All along, the Rams wanted to keep Robinson isolated from the play, but by giving him the free inside release, they trigger his football instincts to work back to the outside, letting him do the work for them. Meanwhile, Nic Grigsby (#55, green arrows), loops inside his target, setting up a block to seal his man to the left as well.
Tavon Austin (#11) finally receives the ball at his own 24-yard line after 4.79 seconds of flight:
Austin catches the ball cleanly and slightly off his right hip. His feet are under him in a balanced position, and he takes a hard jab step to his right (the defense’s left), before doubling back to the right side of the screen. This hard jab step is another key to the success of this play. Two members of the Falcons coverage team veer slightly to this side immediately after the jab step, giving Austin the little edge he needs to turn on the jets and get around the corner. In reality, Atlanta’s coverage team should have felt the pressure from the right side, and realized the jab was simply selling a fake to the left of the screen, rather than the Rams’ actual intent.
Austin gets to the edge and turns upfield, with a six-man wall (blue circles) on the numbers:
With nothing but clear space in front of him, Austin picks up 27 yards before being tackled at the sideline. Fassel’s design here is simple, with two key strategic decisions that the Rams execute perfectly: the triple-team into the eventual wall on the right side of the frame, as well as the decoy sucking in the left gunner before allowing him to work back outside on his own. Because Fassel is so creative with his schemes, it can be incredibly difficult for coverage units to read their keys properly and figure out what is going on, and this is a perfect example of how his creativity challenges defenses. While the length of Fassel’s tenure leading the Rams is uncertain as of today, there is no doubt he is one of the brightest special teams minds in the game, and his schemes consistently produce unique and innovative plays that make the Los Angeles special teams unit one of the strongest in the league.
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