EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Every week, almost without fail, opposing coaches preparing to play the St. Louis Rams go out of their way to mention the need to be prepared for what the Rams can and will do on special teams.
This week, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine was the latest to join in the praise for Rams coach Jeff Fisher and special-teams coordinator John Fassel.
"Having worked with John Fassel in Baltimore and knowing Jeff’s affinity for special-teams play and how important those plays are that we’re going to have to be on point when we’re out there," Pettine said. "They do a lot of creative things in ‘teams’ and don’t look at that as just a transitional play. That’s something we’re going to have to be very mindful of.”
It's something that most Rams' opponents have to be mindful of because it's something the Rams put a lot of work into. It's rare that special teams get center stage on a college football Saturday or a pro football Sunday, but last weekend, we had a rare double after the botched punt that cost Michigan a victory against Michigan State and the botched trickery on fourth down that helped the Patriots beat the Colts.
It's also rare to see a similar mistake from a Fisher-coached team. Regardless of Fisher's record, there's no denying his history of success with special-teams misdirection. In fact, the best-known moment of his career came on special teams in the form of the "Music City Miracle." As coach of the Rams, he's also established a reputation for successfully pulling off fakes and the tricky punt return for a touchdown last year against Seattle now known as "The Mountaineer."
“Over the years, we’ve done a lot of different things," Fisher said. "Whenever you’re going to do something usually like that, it comes down to communication. You have to make sure everybody’s on the same page.
“You trust the players that they’re comfortable at executing it."
Last weekend's disastrous plays could be attributed, in part, to a lack of preparation for the many scenarios special teams can provide. That's why Fassel is one of the most fastidious coaches in the league, putting in the time to ensure that his players are never caught off guard.
"If you just watch us you kind of think they’re just out there doing whatever," long-snapper Jake McQuaide said. "But it’s weeks that we practice these things and before we run a fake, we run it for weeks and weeks and weeks and we just run it until we have the right look or we see something on film that maybe we can expose that maybe they’re not sound and we can make them pay."
Part of Fassel's weekly routine involves putting together a tape of unique special-teams plays that took place the previous weekend. McQuaide instantly recognized what the Colts were trying to do against the Patriots because he'd seen a similar concept from Cincinnati. This week's tape -- which Fassel will show to his players Saturday -- includes that play but also the Michigan mistake, as Fassel said he hadn't had the chance to coach punter Johnny Hekker on what to do if something goes wrong on the snap exchange.
Those lessons aren't just one-sided, either. Fassel will also show the punt-return team the play from a Michigan State perspective on what to do if it's ever put in a situation where it has to manufacture a block.
"We watch every snap of every game from the previous week and build a little tape on situations, highlights, lowlights, just anything that could happen," Fassel said. "You cut it down to 10-15 minutes and watch other teams, other players and that type of stuff, crazy situations, great plays. It’s something we started doing a couple years ago."
That study, along with Fassel's imagination and Fisher's chutzpah, has helped the Rams forge ahead on some of the more creative special-teams looks to be found anywhere in the league. Since Fisher and Fassel arrived in 2012, Hekker has attempted eight passes on fake punts or field goals (he's the holder). Hekker's completed six of those for 99 yards, with a touchdown and five first downs.
In other words, the Rams have been able to snatch an extra possession or score points six times in the past three-plus seasons. That might not seem like much, but considering how few snaps special teams get during the course of a game, it's fairly substantial.
"That’s a big one, stealing a possession is a huge mindset for us," Fassel said. "Whether it’s a takeaway or drawing a penalty or hitting a fake for a first down. We’re not trying to be fancy or cute or full of gadgets, we’re just trying to help the team make a play."
To be sure, reaching the point where Fisher is comfortable enough to call a tricky special-teams play is easier than with other coaches, but it still requires a lot of work. Fassel said "The Mountaineer" punt return from last season was the exception to the rule, where he saw something on film and the team put it in and executed it in fairly short order.
But most other plays take something closer to weeks, months or even years from conception to execution. Fassel even goes so far as to have different players sub in during practice on a play before he wants to call it, because players can get injured or fatigued enough to take them off their respective units for a play or more in the middle of a game.
"It’s honestly not difficult to really draw it up," Fassel said. "But to get guys to execute it, there’s always different looks that you’re going to get against whatever play you’re going to run. So the guys have to be real sharp on ‘If you get this look, do this’ and ‘If you get this look, do that.’ Most of the time, you don’t just put one thing in for just that week. You have got to work on it for weeks and weeks and weeks, maybe even over the course of the year. You work on those things for a while to get them right."