EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Like everyone else who plays, follows or coaches the St. Louis Rams, special teams coordinator John Fassel is frustrated with the continued penalties that his group racks up weekly.
Fassel's frustration is probably greater than anyone's, given what he sees that others may not. While acknowledging that his group has to be smarter with some of its decisions, Fassel said when he reviews the tape of the 17 accepted penalties that have gone against the Rams special teams, he doesn't exactly see eye to eye with the officials.
"There’s some things we’ve got to do to be smarter, but there’s always some that you look at it and you just say, 'that’s not a penalty,’” Fassel said.
Special teams penalties have become something of a hot topic in St. Louis the past few weeks as the Rams head toward potential record-breaking numbers in the category. Earlier this week, we detailed what those infractions have cost the Rams in terms of field position and how they've added up to across-the-board frustration for all parties involved.
Fassel shed a little more light on the matter Thursday when he spoke to the media and was clearly aware of the frustration outside the building as well. That isn't to say that Fassel isn't doing what he can to emphasize the need to be careful but he also doesn't want them to change their mentality too much, lest they become less effective in other areas such as punt and kick coverage, where they rank among the league's best.
Rookie linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong leads the team with four special teams penalties for 40 yards. While some of his penalties have been legititmate calls in the eyes of Fassel and coach Jeff Fisher, his breakneck approach to special teams is what makes him effective in covering punts and kicks. So while Fassel would like Armstrong to be more aware, he doesn't want him to change too much.
The same applies to most of the special teams regulars, a group largely comprised of rookies and second-year players, many of whom have never played special teams consistently.
“I’m never going to tell that guy to calm down," Fassel said of Armstrong. "I think that’s his strength. But gosh, a lot of these guys it’s new to and maybe they haven’t done it the last couple years in college. So, it’s a different game this wide open field, everybody’s fast. It’s part of playing catch up and smart really at the point of attack, which is where the block in the backs, the clips, all those things happen. We had a few of them, but we’ve also been pretty good, getting better at it, which again I get the privilege of watching the tape on Monday and seeing what really happened. It’s just young guys playing fast. They’re playing hard. Can’t ask any more of them in that regard. We’ve just got to keep really putting the extra emphasis on being smart because they’re obviously watching us for whatever reason.”
Without saying it, I think Fassel may have touched on an interesting point that we mentioned in our story from Wednesday. Sometimes things can perpetuate themselves because a reputation is earned some way or another. Since the Rams finished second in the league in special teams penalties last year and have piled them up early this season, it's entirely possible that officials are now looking even harder for calls on them this year.
I reviewed the six penalties from the Jacksonville game and it's hard to disagree with Fassel on a few of the calls. The illegal block on Armstrong, the fair catch interference on Brandon McGee and the two offsides calls against cornerback Janoris Jenkins were pretty obvious. But a holding call against Chase Reynolds was fairly ticky tack (though Reynolds did put his hands on the back of the jersey) and the hold on Daren Bates appeared borderline at best.
Earlier this season, Fisher voiced displeasure with the penalties called on his team in a loss to Atlanta on Sept. 15. In that game, the Rams accrued seven penalties (total, not just special teams) and Fisher said he only agreed with two of those calls.
Since, the Rams have cleaned up the penalties on offense and defense, committing eight on each side of the ball. That total ranks as the seventh fewest in the league on offense and tied for ninth fewest in the NFL on defense.
That just leaves special teams where the Rams insist they don't plan to change the mentality of the players but instead will focus on raising awareness and hoping that fewer of the questionable calls go against them.
“We're talking about it," Fassel said. "We’re practicing it and it has been an issue. I’d love to tell you exactly how I really feel I just don’t want to get in trouble because a couple time we’ve had as good of blocks I’ve ever coached in my career that have been called. That’s not an excuse. There’s been some times where we have committed penalties like most teams in the league -- the block in the backs, holdings on the line of scrimmage. A couple of them got me a little pissed off Monday morning.”