Special teams learn a lesson with Rams decoys

The St. Louis Rams put special teams coaches on notice with two trick plays last week. Vikings coordinator Mike Priefer saw them and was impressed.

Thanks to a pair of desperation type moves made by the St. Louis Rams Sunday in their upset win over the Seattle Seahawks, special teams practices throughout the NFL have been amped up this week.

For those who missed it, the Rams pulled off a pair of monumental special teams plays in their win over Seattle Sunday that made the difference in the game – one on a decoy punt return when the Rams convinced Seattle a punt was going to one side of the field when it was coming down on the other side and gave St. Louis a free ride to the end zone, and the other being a fake punt from their own 30-yard line in which Johnny Hekker threw a pass that was converted into a first down that let the Rams run out the clock.

Both were incredibly gutsy plays, but also plays that were run out of desperation for a team with its 2014 season going up in flames and requiring a spark.

Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer addressed the topic Thursday at his weekly press conference and praised the guts and the glory of such a move.

The punt return for a touchdown was a play that wasn’t without precedent. A few years ago, the Bears pulled off a nearly identical play against the Packers, giving the impression to the players running downfield in coverage that the punt was going to the right side of the field when in fact it was coming down on the left side.

It required most of the players on the return team to sell out to the fake. It also required an innate knowledge of what the opponent typically does on punt coverage – a familiarity that was similar in the St. Louis-Seattle game.

Priefer was impressed with how well the St. Louis fake punt worked and he immediately harkened back to when the Bears attempted a similar play with similar results, although it was negated by a phantom penalty.

“Chicago did that a few years ago when Coach Dave Toub was in Chicago. They did the same thing. (Devin) Hester was the decoy and I want to say Johnny Knox caught it and returned it for a touchdown,” Priefer said. “They ended up calling it back on a holding call; it was a questionable holding call. Chicago actually two years ago ran it against us and it’s just one of those things, we spread the field and we’re looking for it. It’s a great play; you’re taking a chance obviously. Stedman Bailey is not a punt returner by nature but he made a great catch and it was a pretty cool play. I’m glad it didn’t happen to us.”

Priefer said the trickery involved was a testament to how a special teams unit has to work together, whether as a legitimate punt return or a fake like the Rams pulled off on Sunday.

“It was a decoy,” Priefer said. “Tavon Austin did a great job of decoying everybody over there and (Stedman) Bailey kind of went off to the side, he was a corner up on the line of scrimmage and then drifted off and the punter happened to kick it over there. That was probably his tendency, that’s why they had it in. It was a good play.”

The play likely opened a lot of eyes for special teams coaches – both those guarding against such fakes or those looking to employ them. It is keeping everyone on their toes because the NFL is a league of replication and, if it works for somebody else, you can bet it will be copied.

Priefer said the Vikings have a fake punt and field goal play that they practice every week, but you could likely count on one hand how many times the Vikings have employed a fake punt or field goal over the last 25 years. It’s not something that has ever been the M.O., but they still try to keep their players sharp in the event they make the call and can potentially change a game like the Rams did to the heavily favored Seahawks.

“I’m a more conservative guy, but I think that you’ve got a fake field goal in every week, you’ve got a fake punt in every week, you’ve got a surprise onside in every week, a reverse on punt return maybe,” Priefer said. “You’ve got those type of things in every week just to, you know you practice them and hopefully at some point during the season if the opportunity presents itself you go ahead and use them.”

As the 2-5 Vikings prepare to meet the 1-5 Buccaneers Sunday, both teams find themselves in a similar situation as the Rams – looking for something to give the team a spark and get out of the downward spiral they find themselves in. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the Rams have put every special teams coordinator on notice that what you see may not be what is happening.

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