Rams find way to win in spite of special team woes

Saturday, November 23, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- The offense is clicking again and the defense has allowed only one touchdown per game during the Rams' five-game winning streak that's pulled the team back to .500.

Now, if they can just do something about the special teams.

"We've gone backwards in that category, and we've got to do something about that," coach Mike Martz said. "We're not pleased in any phase, and we need to get better."

The Rams' 21-16 victory over the Bears on Monday night was accomplished despite several miscues, both physical and mental. No area of special teams was secure.

Bears punter Brad Maynard pulled off a fake, gaining 20 yards on a fourth down play.

The Bears averaged 15.5 yards on four punt returns, including a 29-yarder by Leon Johnson. Chicago also averaged 27 yards on kickoff returns.

St. Louis had two special team penalties, an offensive holding call on Don Davis in the second quarter that negated a 30-yard punt return by Terrence Wilkins and an illegal use of hands call on Jeremetrius Butler early in the fourth.

Both specialists suffered in the game. Mitch Berger's punts had a lot less hang time than usual, for one thing.

"He punted it into the end zone and his hang times were not real good, either," special teams coach Bobby April said. "He's just got to be more consistent. He's got to be a better defensive weapon than he was in that game."

Martz elected to punt from the Bears 31 rather than attempt a 49-yard field goal in the third quarter, perhaps a bit of a no-confidence vote for Jeff Wilkins. Both Wilkins and April said, however, that the Rams were surprised by the favorable spotting of the ball after Marc Bulger was sacked, believing the line of scrimmage would be the 34 or 35.

"It was a misunderstanding," Wilkins said. "They gave us a real generous spot and the only way to kick it would have been to call a timeout."

Lastly, no one was deep when the Bears were in onside-kick formation but instead had Paul Edinger boot it deep with 3:53 to go. Dre' Bly had to retreat several yards before fielding the bouncing ball at the 10 and returning it 5 yards.

Last week, the Rams needed a defensive stand right after Isaac Bruce's game-winning touchdown reception with 1:14 to go. Ronney Jenkins of the Chargers returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards.

"It just seems like they're getting plays when we need them not to be getting plays," said backup safety Nick Sorensen, a special teams regular. "You need to make the plays on special teams when everyone's watching and when it really matters, and not just here and there.

"We need to be a little more consistent."

The Rams don't plan on any personnel changes the rest of the season because it's too late for that.

"This is not the time you think about that," special teams coach Bobby April said. "The offseason is the time for that."

Martz said defensive end Leonard Little is perhaps the team's best special teams player. But he's also the team leader with seven sacks and is coming off perhaps his best overall game against the Bears with a career-best 10 tackles and five quarterback pressures.

"He was great on the kickoff team, but you can't really afford to put him on there," Martz said. "We've got to have some of these younger players step up and be dominant."

What they'll also do is accentuate keeping the blunders to a minimum.

"We could eliminate the penalties, for one thing," April said. "It's just being a little more disciplined and having maybe better position, that type of thing.

"Coming off of blocks, sustaining blocks, having better position so we don't get penalties -- those are the kinds of things we've got to do better."

Notes: WR Isaac Bruce needs one catch to tie Rams receivers coach Henry Ellard for the franchise career record at 593, but he doesn't seem too excited. "Once it happens, I'll probably just go to the sideline, high-five Henry and ask him what I need to do to get open," Bruce said. "I'll sit back on it later and look on it as being a big deal, but right now it's no big deal." ... QB Kurt Warner needs one touchdown pass in his 50th career game to tie Brett Favre for the second-fastest player to 100 touchdown passes. ... The Rams have won 11 of their last 13 on the road and they're looking to finish unbeaten in November for the first time since 1977.

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