Special migraine

Friday, January 7, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- When Jeff Wilkins is using his shoulder pads, the St. Louis Rams know they're in trouble.

Their kicker is supposed to be the last line of defense on returns, but all too often they've needed him to save the day. It illustrates the Rams' glaring weakness on special teams entering Saturday's playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks (9-7).

"I'm very concerned," coach Mike Martz said. "A few times it's been 'good game' but most of the time it's been hit or miss."

Mostly, miss. The Rams (8-8) were dead last in the 32-team NFL in kickoff return average allowed, 30th in punt coverage, 31st in punt return average and 31st in kickoff return average.

Those are the type of rankings that can drag down a season, which nearly happened with the Rams.

"That has really hurt us this season," said strong safety Adam Archuleta, a member of the kickoff coverage unit. "It's evident that it's something we need to fix."

Wilkins is among the team leaders with six special teams tackles, and has three assists. He got a stop in the season finale, when special teams again were shaky.

Previously unheralded Jerricho Cotchery gouged St. Louis for a 39.2-yard average on five kickoff returns, and his 94-yard touchdown return sparked the New York Jets' comeback from an 11-point second-half deficit. The Rams had to rally to win 32-29 in overtime to reach the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.

"You just can't have a kick returner go downhill at your kicker with a lead blocker," Archuleta said. "A kicker should go through an entire season and not make a tackle."

Martz said the problems that infect all of the special teams units are a combination of coaching and execution.

That places the onus on new special teams coach Mike Stock, although special teams have struggled for years in St. Louis. Bobby April was fired after last season by the Rams, and his new team, the Buffalo Bills, led the AFC in kickoff returns and kickoff coverage while ranking third in punt returns.

The Rams have tried using more starters, but Martz doesn't believe that's the answer. Instead, at least for the coverage units, he believes it's more about a lack of discipline.

On kickoffs, he said too many players want to make the tackle. As a result, they have a tendency to veer out of their lanes and collapse on the ball, leaving holes elsewhere.

Desire also is a big component, so players feel responsible for the shortcomings.

"I think it's going to come down to the 10 guys that are out there, other than Wilkins, have to play with their hair on fire," defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "We have to be in our lane, we have to be disciplined, and we have to blow up the wedge and force the kick returner to make cuts that he doesn't want."

The Rams have shown some improvement on kickoff returns lately after replacing the plodding Arlen Harris with Aveion Cason, who has more burst. Cason is averaging 22.1 yards on 14 returns while Harris averaged 20.2 yards on 47 returns with a best of 29 yards.

Punt returner Sean McDonald is averaging only 4.8 yards, next to last in the NFL, and has seemed tentative at times after making the catch. But Martz has long defended him, saying poor blocking is to blame.

Midway through the season the Rams released punter Sean Landeta, seemingly more of a shock tactic to wake up special teams than a knock on Landeta's ability. But his replacement, Kevin Stemke, has been an improvement with 12 kicks inside the 20 and better hang time.

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