As much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to worry about Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley on Sunday when they visit the Los Angeles Rams, the difference in the game could be provided by the men who are doing their jobs when neither Donald are Gurley are on the field.
The propensity of close finishes in the NFL – the Buccaneers have essentially seen two of their three games go down to the final play, with the other one decided late in the fourth quarter – means that every play is potentially critical. That's true of a pass that could be a touchdown or an interception, and of a pass-rush that does or does not get to the quarterback in team, but it's also true in the kick and return game.
The Buccaneers obviously saw that in Week Three when a missed field goal at the end of regulation was the difference between a potential two-point win and an actual one-point loss, but the impact of special teams can be felt well before the final spotlight kick. And Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians knows his team needs to get more out of that phase of the game.
In particular, Arians is troubled by Tampa Bay's average of 3.3 yards per punt return. Kickoff returns have generally been taken out of the Buccaneers control by opposing teams stringing together a series of touchbacks, but punt returner Bobo Wilson has had nine cracks at bringing back a punt so far, or three per game. Those nine have resulted in total of 30 yards, with no single return longer than 11. Against the Giants last weekend, Wilson caught five punts between the Bucs' 15 and 46-yard lines and on none of the five did the offense get it more than a yard past where it was fielded. Wilson did have one eight-yard return but a 10-yard penalty on Justin Watson erased that and a few extra yards.
"[We need to start] giving our punt returner a chance," said Arians. "They kicked some balls down the middle and are vises didn't do [a good job]. We need our vises to give Bobo a chance because we had some returnable balls to get on the other side of the 50."
The vises are the players who attempt to block the opposing gunners, who line up wide for the punt team and are the only ones who can start downfield immediately at the snap. Sometimes the return team tries to block those vises with just one man in order to have more defenders who can rush the punter. Sometimes a team puts two vises on each gunner to focus on getting a better return opportunity. And sometimes one gunner will get two blockers while the other gets one. None of those combinations have worked for the Bucs yet.
"Two guys on one or one guy on one or half-and-half, we've just got to get them blocked," said Arians. "We've just got to give him a chance to get started."
Gay has made seven of his nine field goals and shown he can make long kicks with ease. Punter Bradley Pinion has succeeded in producing a touchback on all but two of his kickoffs so far. Beyond that, the special teams haven't been an edge for the Bucs yet. They are allowing 10.4 yards per punt return and Pinion has a 43.0-yard gross average and a 37.0-yard net. Those numbers are a little unfairly tweaked by a mostly-blocked punt in Week One that counts as a deflection because the ball went forward a few yards. Still, that block as well as the blocked extra point against the Giants are further special teams miscues.
The Buccaneers can and likely will play better in the third phase of the game, and it would be helpful if that improvement starts this week so that the Bucs aren't at a significant disadvantage in that possibly decisive category. Statistically, the Rams don't stand out as an upper echelon special teams crew this year. Kicker Greg Zuerlein has the same field goal numbers as Gay, seven of nine, and punter Johnny Hekker's net of 35.8 is lower than Pinion's. Los Angeles has averaged 10.2 yards per punt return but they've given up an average of 12.8. They haven't had a kickoff return yet.
But that's in a three-game sample size. In a much larger sample – that being the seven-plus seasons since John Fassel took over as special teams coordinator – the Rams have been one of the most challenging teams for which to prepare in the kick-and-return game. Fassel, known as "Bones," was one of the few coaches that Sean McVay retained from the Rams' previous staff when he arrived in 2017, and the team's history of successful trickery on special teams surely played a factor. The opening line of Fassel's bio for the Rams says it all:
"The Rams have developed a reputation for delivering the unexpected in the kicking game…"
That's largely due to Hekker, whose 12 completions (including playoffs) are the most by any non-quarterback since 2012. Hekker is a master of the fake punt and he has a career passer rating of 103.8. He's been to four Pro Bowls, one of many Rams special teamers who have been named all-stars under Fassel's watch. In 2017, Los Angeles pulled off a rare Pro Bowl special teams quartet, with Hekker and Zuerlein joined by return man Pharoh Cooper and long-snapper Jake McQuaide.
The Bucs' special-teamers know they have to be ready for anything with Bones calling the shots on the other sideline.
"Obviously, with their special teams it's a huge challenge with the fakes and everything that they do," said Arians. "It will be a crucial part of the game. Same thing [last week] – we left five points off the board with extra points and field goals. It will be huge in this game, too."