ST. LOUIS -- Backed up to their own 18 with two minutes, 55 seconds to go, the St. Louis Rams were on the verge of watching another big lead and whatever was left of their hopes for the 2014 season slip through their fingers.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had just marched his team 80 yards in 2:18 to trim what was once an 18-point Rams lead to two. The Rams had fourth-and-3 and were in desperate need of a first down. So Rams coach Jeff Fisher did what he had done throughout the day, turning to a creative and effective special-teams unit to win the game by calling a fake punt deep in St. Louis territory.
Punter Johnny Hekker hit running back Benny Cunningham for an 18-yard gain, and the Rams moved the chains and hung on for a wild 28-26 win partially because of Fisher's gutsy play call but more so because of his special-teams unit's repeated ability to execute against Seattle.
"You guys saw the flow of the game. We were having a hard time stopping Russell," Fisher said. "There was too much time left on the clock right there, and I didn’t want to give the ball back to him, and I thought that was our best chance to get a first down."
As it turned out, the Rams' leap to a 2-4 record hinged on the ability of the special teams to do more than get a final first down to ice the victory. There was Cunningham's 75-yard kickoff return to set up the team's first touchdown. There was the creative 90-yard punt return from Stedman Bailey for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead. And, of course, there was the fake punt that required more chutzpah than anything else.
"The last thing you are expecting in a tight situation like that is what we called," linebacker James Laurinaitis said.
Before the Rams even began their final drive, Fisher had his mind made up that if the marker turned to fourth down, he wanted to go for a fake. In the week leading up to the game, special-teams coach John Fassel noticed an opening in Seattle's punt return team where it would leave a single blocker on the outside against the gunner.
In this case, the Rams were looking for Bailey, the gunner, to get a one-on-one opportunity. If he saw what is called a "vice" look (two blockers on one gunner), the Rams were to change the call to send Cunningham the other direction. Sure enough, Bailey was matched up one-on-one. At the snap, Bailey sold the play by taking off downfield as Cunningham came across the formation where Hekker hit him for an 18-yard gain.
Hekker, who grew up playing quarterback in the Seattle area, previously threw a touchdown pass against the Seahawks on a fake field goal in 2012. Cunningham, who had never been in such a situation, had rarely found himself so wide open.
"Make the catch or I’m probably going to be done; this might be my last play in the NFL if I don’t make this catch," Cunningham said. "Either they’re going to cut me or my teammates are going to kill me."
The successful conversion moved the Rams’ win probability from 64 percent to 86 percent. Per ESPN Stats & Information, had the Rams failed to convert, their win probability would have dropped to 35 percent.
That they had such favorable odds in the first place came as a result of the imaginative punt return from Bailey. On a play that the Rams call "Mountaineer" because it prominently involved two former West Virginia players (Bailey and punt returner Tavon Austin), the Rams jumped out to another huge home lead on a play that fooled everyone in the building.
Taking a page from a play Chicago ran successfully against Green Bay on Sept. 25, 2011, only to have it called back for holding, Fassel and the Rams picked up on another cue during the week. In watching film of Seahawks punter Jon Ryan, Fassel noticed that when the Seahawks kick "sky" punts from near midfield with the intent to down the kick near the end zone, the kick usually drifts to the left. In fact, on 14 such chances, Ryan's punts had all landed in approximately the same spot, according to Bailey.
As the ball took off, Bailey ran in the direction of that spot looking for the ball while Austin pretended the ball was headed his way on the opposite side of the field. A handful of Rams blockers went toward Austin to sell it further, taking many Seahawks with them.
Bailey hauled it in over his shoulder, turned up the field and found nothing but open space on his way to a touchdown on the first punt return of his career.
"From watching the tape, I would know exactly where the ball would land," Bailey said. "For me to catch it, it was just my receiver skills and catching the ball over my head. I turned around, secured it and just started running."
In the process, Bailey and the Rams special teams delivered an unexpected win in a most unexpected way.