Matt Gay’s last-second heroics show how much Rams’ special teams have improved
Dramatic endings to the first two NFL divisional-round playoff games last weekend did not escape the attention of Rams kicker Matt Gay.
The day before the Rams played the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Tennessee Titans with a last-second field goal. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers the same way.
“You’re thinking, ‘There’s no way that another one happens,’” Gay said, “but you kind of want it to happen again.”
Gay’s 30-yard field goal as time expired sent the Rams into the NFC championship game against the 49ers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
The NFL’s decision to stay out of L.A. for more than two decades is the main reason why 49ers fans likely will outnumber Rams fans at SoFi Stadium.
Gay’s field goal was the most important special teams play of the year for the Rams, who appear to have solved special teams issues that plagued them during much of the season.
And the timing could not be better.
The 49ers defeated the Rams twice this season, including a 27-24 overtime victory on Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium that ended with Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal.
It was the third time in the last three seasons that Gould beat the Rams with a late field goal.
Against the Packers, Gould’s 45-yard field goal as time expired gave the 49ers a 13-10 victory that featured two other significant special teams plays by the 49ers.
Jimmie Ward blocked a field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half, preventing the Packers from taking a 10-0 lead. In the fourth quarter, Jordan Willis blocked a punt and Talanoa Hufanga scooped the ball and returned it for a touchdown that tied the score and set the stage for Gould’s game-winning kick.
The Rams might not require special teams plays that dramatic to defeat the 49ers for the first time since 2018. But they cannot afford to revert to committing miscues that hounded them early in the season.
Those included a snap that bounced off punt protector Nick Scott and was recovered in the end zone by the Indianapolis Colts. Or failing to recover an onside kick and falling for two fake punts by the Detroit Lions. Or Gay bouncing kickoffs out of bounds.
When special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis was hired, he said the Rams were looking for a kick returner who could “ring the bell and drop the ball over the goal line.”
In November they found one when they signed Brandon Powell to the practice squad.
Powell showed his potential on a 65-yard kickoff return in a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. He made his mark late in the season by returning a punt 61 yards for a touchdown in a playoff-clinching victory against the Minnesota Vikings.
Over the last three seasons, the Rams and 49ers have nearly identical records — except when it comes to head-to-head meetings involving the two teams.
In the victory over the Buccaneers, Powell returned three punts, including one for 21 yards and another for 33 yards that helped set up a touchdown.
Veteran punter Johnny Hekker also appears to have regained his All-Pro form. In a wild-card victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Hekker placed several punts inside the 10-yard line. Against the Buccaneers, he placed one punt at the five-yard line and averaged 42 net yards per kick.
Special teams growth and improvement is the result of a collective effort, Scott said.
“One of the things that we’ve been doing a tremendous job of is just looking back at what we’ve done, and what we can do better and really taking that personally and applying it on the field,” he said.
Gay’s performance on field-goal and extra-point attempts was the lone constant special teams positive during the regular season. He made 32 of 34 field-goal attempts and was 48 of 49 on extra points. He was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Gay kicked two field goals in the wild-card victory over the Cardinals. Against the Buccaneers, he made attempts from 26 and 40 yards before missing a 47-yard attempt in the fourth quarter that would have increased the Rams’ lead to 30-13.
Teammates immediately encouraged Gay, saying they were going to need him. Snapper Matthew Orzech went further, telling the kicker, “’Hey, it’s going to come down to you,’” Gay said.
“It was kind of time to let that one go and look into the opportunity that was going to come,” he said.
The Buccaneers took advantage of Rams fumbles, and quarterback Tom Brady brought back his team from a 27-3 deficit to tie the score with 42 seconds left.
Gay, anticipating that the Rams would move into field-goal range, began kicking balls into a net on the sideline. He thought receiver Cooper Kupp might score when he hauled in a 44-yard pass from Stafford, but Kupp was tackled at the 12-yard line.
Stafford got the Rams lined up, took the snap and then spiked the ball with four seconds left, bringing on Gay.
The Rams defeated the defending champion Buccaneers despite four turnovers, but they cannot expect to win a Super Bowl if those miscues continue.
“Walking onto the field, a couple guys gave me a little nod, a little gesture just like, ‘You got this,’” Gay said.
Gay’s kick completed the dramatic victory.
“Special teams came out and executed the way they’ve done so many times this year in big-time moments for us,” Stafford said of Gay’s kick. “It was huge.”
For the Rams to defeat the 49ers and advance to Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium, special teams must continue to come up big.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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