Zuerlein Headed Toward History

Posted Dec 3, 2012

Long before this season began, Rams coach Jeff Fisher laid out a plan for his team and how it could go about winning games. Not in three years, not next year but right away.

Fisher repeated the mantra that nobody told him his team couldn’t win right away. The proposal was relatively simple in theory though clearly more difficult in execution.

“It’s awesome,” defensive end Chris Long said. “If you’re going to be on a team that plays good defense and runs the football, a kicker is going to be important to you. If you’re going to be in close games like Coach Fisher has laid this blueprint out for us to be in, a kicker is going to be a big part of that.”

So it was that the Rams invested a sixth-round draft choice on kicker Greg Zuerlein, a relative football vagabond out of tiny Missouri Western with a cannon attached to the place where a right leg would normally fit.

The idea was that the Rams could play strong defense, the offense would make plays at the appropriate times and if the opportunity presented itself, Zuerlein would be called out of the bullpen to be the Rams’ version of Mariano Rivera.

Zuerlein put on a show in the preseason and had a strong early season showing but Sunday provided him a chance to get his first save. Two times he was asked to bail the Rams out. Two times he succeeded.

“Our rookie kicker is pretty good,” running back Steven Jackson said. “Our rookies overall on this roster are pretty good. He’s pretty clutch. He’s stepped up in big times, big moments and came through for us when the balance, both teams were struggling. Special teams turned out to be the difference.”

Ever the humble rookie or ever the humble kicker, however you choose to look at him, Zuerlein was quick to deflect the petals thrown at his feet after he booted a 53-yarder to send Sunday’s game against San Francisco into overtime and then boomed a 54-yarder to win it with time running out in the overtime period.

In the process, Zuerlein became the first kicker in league history to send a game past regulation with a 50-plus yard kick and then win a game in overtime with a make from a similar distance.

That Zuerlein came through after missing a 58-yard kick earlier in the game and in the first meeting against San Francisco with a chance to win it, only adds to the meaning of Sunday’s success.

“It’s great to get the win,” Zuerlein said. “I think that’s the biggest thing is that we won the game.  Personally, it feels good just to make a game winner.  I’ve had some opportunities before and didn’t convert on them, but the biggest thing is just we got the win.”

Zuerlein now has converted seven field goals from 50-plus yards this season. He’s missed four times from beyond 50 yards but his conversion rate still ranks him among the most successful long distance kickers in league history.

In fact, with one more make from 50 yards or more, Zuerlein will tie Morten Anderson and Jason Hanson for the most in a season in NFL history. His two blasts on Sunday allowed him to pass the previous franchise record of six previously held by Josh Brown and Tony Zendejas.

Should Zuerlein bring down the NFL record in his rookie season, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to his teammates. None had a doubt in their mind about Zuerlein booting the tying and winning field goals against the Niners.

“Money,” quarterback Sam Bradford said when asked what he was thinking when Zuerlein stepped on the field. “I think this entire team has all the confidence in the world in Greg. We see him make those everyday at practice. It’s just kind of routine for him. I think we all expected him to make it.”

SAM ON THE RUN: Something that might not be routine for Bradford himself but revealed itself at a crucial time in Sunday’s game was the continued development of his pocket awareness and ability to run for yards when the play breaks down.

As time ran down in regulation and the Rams needed to score to keep the game alive, Bradford took off twice for gains of 14 and 11 yards, the latter of which had 15 more tacked on when safety Dashon Goldson hit Bradford after a slide.

“Yeah Schotty (Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) is always talking to me about finding QB run lanes and going,” Bradford said. “That two-minute drill, they were playing a lot of two-man, there’s no one accounting for me. Just found some holes and made some plays.”

While Bradford didn’t provide the eye popping numbers that some would like, he did enough to help the Rams get the win against the Niners. He came up with clutch plays like those runs to keep late drives moving, didn’t make any mistakes in terms of turnovers and hit throws under pressure such as a two-point conversion to tie it at 10.

All of that against a defense where offense is hard to come by.

“Sam, he sees things very well,” Fisher said. “He played very well. He threw balls away today. He made some tight throws. I thought he played really well against a tough defense and then, obviously, you’ve got man-to-man commitments with the linebackers and secondary. In two minute, that’s what he does – he’s coached to run. People don’t see him necessarily as a guy that can make plays with his legs, but he did that. That was a huge part of that drive.”

Asked whether he now fancies himself a running quarterback, Bradford said he’s not worried about that but acknowledged he will keep trying to expand that part of his game.

“I think he (49ers QB Colin Kaepernick) did get out of the pocket for a long one,” Bradford said. “I’m not sure if I quite have that speed, but I was able to make a couple plays with my feet today and I’ll look to continue to do that.”

CHANGE IN PLANS: The aforementioned two-point conversion came at a key time after the Rams trimmed their deficit to 10-8 with less than four minutes to go.

In need of two to tie it, Fisher and Schottenheimer sent in a play that allowed for some freedom based on what Bradford and the offense saw at the line of scrimmage.

“We actually…the play before we kind of had a run pass option,” Bradford said. “But obviously when we got the penalty it went to straight pass.”

The penalty to which Bradford is referring was a questionable false start on left tackle Rodger Saffold who came out of his stance when it appeared Niners pass rusher Aldon Smith jumped offsides.

The call went against Saffold and the Rams had to adjust to a pass call from the Niners’ 7. Bradford hit tight end Lance Kendricks at the 2 and he finished the run in the end zone for the conversion.

Saffold was quite pleased that it worked out following the penalty.

“Oh yeah,” Saffold said. “I’m gonna have a heart attack with all these changes and things going on. That was another one where I almost dropped to my knees and thanked the lord.”