Special teams unit is biggest surprise of Rams season


This past St. Louis Rams season was full of quite a few positive surprises. Zac Stacy’s emergence as a top rookie running back, Robert Quinn’s utter dominance at defensive end and Rodger Saffold’s impressive versatility on the offensive line all qualified as pleasant developments to Rams fans.

But the biggest surprise might be a shocking one to Rams fans.

The St. Louis Rams had one of the best special teams units in the entire league.

That’s right. I’m talking about the same special teams unit that caused thousands of broken TVs across the St. Louis area* back in September and October because of numerous dumb penalties that negated long Tavon Austin returns.

*Based on unconfirmed reports of enraged fans throwing their remotes

Once the penalties were mostly cleaned up, the Rams had one of the best special teams units in the NFL.

A lot of this has to do with All-Pro punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein, who have every right to lay claim to the title of NFL’s best kicker/punter tandem. Hekker set an NFL record with 44.2 net yards per punt. Hekker and his punt coverage unit gave up just 79 punt return yards all year, or 2.8 yards per return, which ranked as the best in the NFL. That’s 19 fewer yards than Tavon Austin’s 98-yard punt return against the Colts.

The kick return unit was almost as good, with Zuerlein booting 52 of his 76 kickoffs out of the back of the end zone, one of the best rates among all kickoff specialists. Of those 24 kickoffs that were returned, the Rams gave up just 21.8 yards per return, good for eighth-best in the league. Not only that, but the Rams didn’t give up a kick return for more than 40 yards. Additionally, Zuerlein made 26 of 28 field goals, including a perfect 17 of 17 inside 40 yards. He also made all 34 extra points on the season and executed a perfect onside kick against the Saints, which the Rams recovered. Pretty impressive.

As for the Rams’ return game, the results were a bit more middling. Despite Austin’s aforementioned 98-yard punt return, the Rams ranked 18th in the NFL with an average of 8.8 yards per punt return. The kick return unit ranked about the same – 20th in the NFL with an average of 22.6 yards per return, including a long of just 32 yards, which ranked 31st.

Still, the Rams special teams unit ranked really high according to both standard stats and advanced metrics. Pro Football Focus ranked the Rams as the ninth best special teams unit with a cumulative grade of +50.2 Football Outsiders ranked St. Louis as their no. 4 special teams unit in DVOA, and no. 3 in weighted DVOA – a massive accomplishment after ranking 26th according to the same metrics in 2012.

So there you have it: In a year full of ups and downs, the Rams’ special teams unit consistently played well and even helped Hekker set an NFL record. I certainly didn’t see that coming, did you?

How will the Rams rookies do in the second year? We took a look ahead.

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