June 21, 2024

The offense is a top-10 unit with a Pro Bowl quarterback at the controls. The defense, anchored by a three-time NFL defensive player of the year, is a solid if not elite group.

Rams special teams?

As the Rams prepare for their NFC wild-card game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, kicking and punt coverage loom as areas for concern.

The Rams finished 10-7 this season despite erratic performances by special teams units.

Rams kickers Brett Maher and Lucas Havrisik made only 74.4% of their field-goal attempts, which ranked 30th among 32 teams. They made 86.5% of their extra-point attempts, which ranked 31st.

The Rams gave up a game-ending punt return for a touchdown in a 37-31 overtime defeat to the Baltimore Ravens. Three weeks later, they gave up another punt return for a touchdown in a 26-25 victory over the New York Giants.

On Friday, coach Sean McVay was asked to assess his confidence level in the kicking and punt-return units as the Rams enter the postseason, where margins for error are thinner.

“We’ve been working really hard at that,” McVay said. “And so you just continue to take it a day at a time. I like what I’ve seen up to this point, and then ultimately we’ve got to be able to go execute.”

The Rams’ kicking problems are due in part to their decision to pull back spending and not re-sign Matt Gay. The 2021 Pro Bowl selection received a four-year contract from the Indianapolis Colts that included $13 million in guarantees, according to overthecap.com.

The Rams thought they could get by with rookie punter Ethan Evans — a seventh-round draft pick — and long snapper Alex Ward and kicker Tanner Brown, both undrafted rookies. But Brown was cut at the end of training camp, and the Rams signed Maher.

 Rams place kicker Brett Maher (8) prepares to kick.

Brett Maher (8) says the Rams are improving the timing of their kicking operation. Punter Ethan Evans is his holder.

(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

“Everyone in the league has different parameters for the way that the GMs or the head coaches want to allocate money in those things,” special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said, adding, “We’ve got to be better no matter who’s out there, no matter what we do.

“I’ve got to coach better. We got to play better. We got to make our kicks. We got to cover. We got to punt with hang time, good distance, direction, all those things to help the others around us do our job better.”

Maher, a fifth-year pro, made 29 of 32 field-goal attempts for the Dallas Cowboys in 2022, but he was perhaps best known for missing four of five extra-point attempts in a wild-card victory over Tampa Bay.

In the first seven games for the Rams, Maher made 17 of 23 field-goal attempts and only three of seven from 50 yards or farther. In a 24-17 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, he missed two field-goal attempts and an extra-point attempt.

The Rams cut Maher and, with an endorsement from Gay, signed rookie Lucas Havrisik from the Cleveland Browns practice squad. Havrisik, however, also struggled with consistency. Before the Rams played the Ravens, Havrisik held off a challenge from veteran Mason Crosby.

But when Havrisik missed two extra-point attempts in a Week 17 victory over the New York Giants, McVay had seen enough.

The Rams cut Havrisik, and Blackburn once again reached out to Maher.

“I had never necessarily seen a situation like this before, so I think it was a little bit surprising on my end,” Maher said upon his return to the team. “I’ve been through a lot of situations, but not one like this.

“But I think Sean and Chase aren’t like most people, so I enjoy being back in the locker room and working with them.”

Maher said he had remained in shape for another opportunity.

“I was doing what I felt was enough to stay sharp,” he said. “If I got a call I felt like I could jump back in. At that point in the year you’re kind of narrowed down to playoff teams, so I wanted to make sure I was ready to go.”

In a 21-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Maher made only one of two extra-point attempts, once again raising concern.

With Ward on injured reserve because of a neck injury, Carson Tinker has been the snapper for the last four games. Evans is the holder.

Missed kicks are not always the fault of the kicker, Blackburn said.

“There’s a chain in command within that link there and we just have to be more consistent from start to finish,” Blackburn said.

The Rams, Blackburn said, also have been working to improve tackling, which has been glaringly suspect.

“Tackling has been an issue … I’m not going to hide from that,” Blackburn said. “No part of me would want to do that. … It has to be at that level of importance and that eagerness for each player.”

On Sunday, the crowd at Ford Field is expected to make it tough on the Rams with deafening noise.

Maher said after getting reacclimated to the snap operation last week, the Rams have had a good week of preparation. That includes making kicks with music blaring at practices.

“If you feel like you’ve been in a situation similar to that, it’s easier to rely on your training and just go out there and let it rip,” he said.

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