Stellar Special Teams Crucial in Victory over Jaguars

JACKSONVILLE — When a team receives one special teams touchdown, it’s often a catalyst for victory.

But two special teams touchdowns in one game? That’s nearly insurmountable.

And on a day where Los Angeles’ offense struggled to get points against a solid Jacksonville defense, the Rams’ special teams unit was clearly what led to a 27-17 victory.

Wide receiver Pharoh Cooper returned the opening kickoff 103 yards, spotting L.A. seven points. Then linebacker Cory Littleton blocked a punt deep in Jacksonville territory that running back Malcolm Brown put in the end zone.

Plus, kicker Greg Zuerlein nailed two field goal attempts, including one from 56 yards out — his longest of the season so far.

Between the two touchdowns, field goals, and extra points, special teams accounted for 21 of Los Angeles’ 27 points.

“I think you guys have seen us play enough that it’s very difficult in the NFL when you give up that many points on [special] teams, it’s very difficult to win the game,” Jacksonville head cough Doug Marrone said postgame.

In his postgame press conference, head coach Sean McVay credited special teams coordinator John Fassel and assistant special teams coach Tyrone McKenzie for their efforts in preparing their players for a dominating performance.

“Can’t say enough about those guys — great job by Pharoh Cooper to start out the game, and then we get the blocked punt, Malcom Brown’s able to finish it. So John Fassel and Tyrone McKenzie did a great job with those guys, getting them ready for an excellent opponent,” McVay said. “Their special teams have done a really good job throughout this season so far. I can’t say enough about their effort, and that was the difference in winning this football game today.”

“Every week we just try to make plays and we definitely met that goal today,” Brown said. “That’s our mindset in practice to play like we do in the game. And that’s how we played today.”

On the opening kickoff, Cooper fielded the ball three yards into the end zone, then broke to his right. After making a spin move near the numbers at the visitors’ 20-yard line, Cooper had a some space to the outside, found it, and darted up the sideline. Wide receiver Mike Thomas made a nice block to spring Cooper, and the wideout was able to evade two diving Jaguars to score the Rams’ first kick return touchdown since 2005.

“It takes everybody — all 11 guys,” Cooper said of scoring on the play. “Credit to those guys, they work their tails off at practice every week too, so I give a lot of credit to those guys. We have a great chemistry back there with the wedges and the front line. So they did a great job all week preparing and all year really. A lot of credit goes to them.”

Cooper now leads the league with a 31.7 yard kick return average, and has two of the longest returns so far this season at 66 and 103 yards.

McVay said he’s noticed Cooper progress in the role as the year’s gone on, in part because it’s hard to exactly replicate those situations in practice.

“You look at where he’s able to pop the one, after he’s ended up putting it on the ground earlier on in the season. I thought it was a big return he had against Dallas a couple weeks ago,” McVay said. “You get some confidence going, you can see that he’s a strong runner. And to be able to make that play to finish was huge for us, big momentum boost to start out 7-0 right away. Pharoh did an excellent job on that one.”

While the Rams looked like they would need a two-minute drive to score before halftime, special teams put the club back in the end zone instead with the blocked punt. On 4th-and-9 from the Jacksonville 19, Littleton broke through the middle of the Jags protection, extended his arms, and hit the ball just as it came off Brad Nortman’s foot. The ball went to the right, where Brown scooped it up. At that point, the running back was joined by a number of his teammates, as they essentially used a rugby scrum to go eight yards into the end zone.

“Basically we came out with a mindset that our special teams was going to make big plays in this game and one thing was the blocked punt,” Littleton said. “We came with a scenario where we had a chance to do it and we successfully executed it.”

The points were clearly critical for both special teams touchdowns, but quarterback Jared Goff also noted how those plays were significant for Los Angeles’ energy and attitude.

“Starting the game off there with Pharoh’s kick — giving you seven points right off the bat and then you have a punt block that turns into a touchdown. It’s just momentum,” Goff said. “More than anything, the points are awesome, but you get that momentum. You get that feeling. You get that belief — the belief that you are going to win. And it’s a good feeling. And those were huge, obviously, tonight in the result of the game.”

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