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Special Teams a Difference Maker for L.A.

It's no secret that the Rams have one of the elite special teams units in the league. That's been the case since coordinator John "Bones" Fassel arrived with the club in 2012, and was undoubtedly one of the factors that led head coach Sean McVay to keeping him in that role in 2017.

But this year's special teams performance has been remarkable even by the bar Fassel set over the last five years.

"I don't think no one is playing like those guys," running back Todd Gurley said after Sunday's game.

"I think it's a huge part of it," McVay said. "Certainly doesn't go unnoticed in our building in how much we appreciate the effort from those guys, what a great job 'Bones' and [assistant special teams coach] Ty [McKenzie] have done kind of putting our guys in great positions and then they have been able to deliver on Sundays consistently."

That trend only continued in the Los Angeles' 32-16 victory over Arizona on Sunday. The Rams' special teams was likely the difference in the contest, making a number of significant plays to help tilt the matchup to the visitors' favor.

It started early with kicker Greg Zuerlein's 56-yard field goal on the Rams' opening drive. That marked the 10th time L.A. has ended its first possession with points this season. Zuerlein has also connected on six of his seven attempted field goals of at least 50 yards — the only one he missed was from a near unreasonable 63-yards out.

"Standard happiness every time a ball goes through whether it's from I don't know as close as you can get or as far as you can get," Zuerlein said. "Anytime it goes through you're happy."

And, yes, Zuerlein missed an extra point — his first of the season. But he's made 35-of-36 this season — 97.2 percent. And the two-time reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Month nailed all four of his field goal attempts in the contest.

Sunday's game also featured a key special teams sequence from the punt and punt return team. After L.A. went three-and-out deep in its own territory in the third quarter, Johnny Hekker successfully flipped the field with a 70-yard punt. Hekker boomed the ball out of the Rams' end zone, it bounced at the Arizona 30, and went out of bounds at the Arizona 21.

Los Angeles' defense did its part, with defensive tackle Aaron Donald sacking quarterback Blaine Gabbert to induce a punt. And then Pharoh Cooper returned a punt 30 yards to the home team's 30, giving the Rams terrific field position.

"We're getting so much help from them," defensive lineman Michael Brockers said of the special teams unit. "It's like the hidden yardage you don't really get to see during the game is when your returner returns it to the 30, returns to the 40, returns it to the 35. And the coverage on the punts — they don't really get anything. Johnny is pinning them deep."

"The punt Johnny had flipping the field, kicking it from our own end zone and having it downed on the 20 on the other side. I think Greg has been as solid as anyone in the league. And then you look at Pharoh and what he's been able to do in the return game and setting us up with good field position consistently — it's been awesome," quarterback Jared Goff said.

Cooper has been returning punts for only six games, and he's had a return of at least 20 yards in four of them. Putting that in perspective, the Rams had four returns of at least 20 yards in all of 2016 that weren't negated by penalty.

"He's been doing a fantastic job," offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said of Cooper. "He's constantly working on what he needs to do. He knows that special teams it's really hard to hang on to the ball just because of how many people hit you from different angles that you can't see and he's been doing a great job of hanging onto the ball and focusing on what he needs to focus on. And he's been making plays on offense, but on special teams he has really shined. And he's taking it upon himself to once again have that standard of how we need to perform and how he can add to the team."

But special teams had more of an impact than just field position and scoring on Sunday. The unit also wiped points off the board for the opposition, as defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker blocked an extra point and Brockers blocked a 45-yard field goal.

"Got some good knock-back on the snapper, got my hand up, and got the ball," Brockers said of his fourth-quarter block. "I mean, yeah we feel good about ourselves. We feel good. The technique we're taught on the goal blocks and just really trusting the process, that's a testament to it."

And it would be remiss to not mention outside linebacker Matt Longacre recovering a pooch/onside kick attempt by the Cardinals early in the fourth quarter when L.A. was up by only 10 points.

As veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth said postgame, it's a sign of success when a team can get contributions from all three phases like the Rams have. And special teams can be a significant difference maker.

"When you really look at it I used to say this at Cincy all the time — this game is really a team game in the sense that all three phases can play off each other," Whitworth said. "You look at the really good teams in the league and it just seems like they pick each other up. If the D has a bad moment their offense makes up for it, if the whole team is struggling the special teams makes a huge play and it just changes the vibe of the game. You look at those really good teams and they just seem to have that ability — especially when you get to the playoffs and everybody is good. There's just got to be this thing that changes it and special teams sometimes can be that thing that changes the momentum of a football team."

And that's part of why Zuerlein said Los Angeles' special teams unit takes "a lot of pride" in what the unit is asked to do.

"Everybody. Not just one guy — everyone from the top down," Zuerlein said. "Coach McVay, he makes a big point of making special teams an important part of what we do. And 'Bones,' coach Fassel, in all my years here he has always been a huge influence on everything we do to take pride in all the work that we put in every week. Hopefully it shows up on Sunday, and it has. So really, it starts with those two and then it trickles down to the rest of us. It shows."

Check out the best photos from the Los Angeles Rams 32-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

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