ST. LOUIS -- It was hard to believe, even after seeing it.
Houston return man Keshawn Martin cradled a Greg Zuerlein kickoff five yards deep in the end zone Sunday at Reliant Stadium. Martin was only 10 yards out of the end zone when he was greeted by Rams safety and special teams captain Rodney McLeod.
McLeod hit Martin hard from the side, knocking him counterclockwise in the process. The ball popped out, and there was backup linebacker and core special teams player Daren Bates. The ball was in the air for just an instant. Bates, only a couple of feet from Martin, grabbed it and ran 11 yards into the end zone for a touchdown and a 31-6 lead.
"Who is that guy?" one media member in the press box asked.
"Daren Bates!" exclaimed Fox television play-by-play man Chris Myers after the score.
OK, Daren Bates is no household name. But he put the nail in the coffin for Houston on that day with his special teams touchdown. And then celebrated with a back-first, spinning, leap in the end zone.
"Just excited," said Bates, an undrafted rookie from Auburn. "Trying to put what Coach (John) Fassel calls 'Rams Energy' to get everyone excited to just keep playing and have fun out there."
Fassel is the Rams special teams coordinator.
After Bates' dive, a mini mosh pit broke out once he got back on his feet involving Benny Cunningham, Cody Davis, and Brandon McGee. Stedman Bailey tried to join the free-for-all but was a tad late. Just as he leaped to join the fray, the bodies parted, and Bailey fell to the ground. Pretty hilarious.
None of which would've happened, obviously, without the hit by McLeod.
"Honestly, I was just going for the tackle." McLeod said. "The next thing I know, I looked up and Bates is in the end zone."
Simple as that. Bates would like to take credit for a feat of great athleticism, but ...
"It was just like a reaction really," he said. "Saw the ball, put my hands out, caught out, and just ran in the end zone."
Mere minutes after Bates' score, the team announced Bates had a hip injury and his return was questionable. Did Bates hurt the hip on his leap into the end zone?
"I had tweaked it before that," Bates said. "Just an accident a couple plays before. But I'll be good -- back on Wednesday."
Bates wouldn't have been in position to make the play had he not pancaked Houston blocker Justin Tuggle with a vicious but legal hit just a few yards before getting to Martin.
It was that kind of attitude that attracted the attention of coaches during training camp. At the time, one coach likened him to a menacing neighborhood dog, the kind who curls his mouth and starts growling as you walk by -- a clear sign to steer clear.
"That's me," Bates said Sunday.
That approach landed Bates a job on the 53-man roster at the end of preseason. He said Auburn was the only major college that showed interest in him coming out of high school, and the Rams were the only NFL team interested in signing him as a rookie free agent after the 2013 draft.
In late July, during a special teams-only practice, he and since-released linebacker Josh Hull went at it on several occasions during intense one-on-one drills complete with clutching, grabbing, and trash-talking. It eventually escalated into a scuffle and they had to be separated.
A short while before that practice, Bates tweeted: "Time to go get a job today."
Bates' TD in Houston showed that giving him a job was a good move.
"That's a hard thing to do, score on the kickoff cover team," coach Jeff Fisher said. "That's really hard to do. But you know that's one of the things that Coach Fassel talked about -- as long as they keep playing hard, sometimes those good things are going to happen. Huge play for us."
Then again, scoring special teams touchdowns of any kind hasn't come easy for the Rams.
From the end of the Rams' last Super Bowl season (2001) to the beginning of Fisher's tenure in 2012, the Rams scored only six special teams touchdowns: three on punt returns, and one apiece via kickoff return, blocked punt, and a fake field goal.
Over that same 10 seasons, Rams special teams allowed a whopping 22 touchdowns to opponents: 12 on kickoff returns, eight on punt returns, and one each on a blocked punt and a fake field goal.
So far under Fisher the Rams have scored two special teams TDs and allowed none. They scored on a fake field goal early last season against Seattle, with holder Johnny Hekker throwing a TD pass to Danny Amendola. And then came Bates' score.
This season, Rams special teams have been under fire because of a proliferation of penalties. Bates kept the football after his touchdown and said, "I'm thinking about giving it to Coach Bones (Fassel), because that's what he's always wanted. ... Since rookie camp, he's been talking about scoring on 'teams.'"
Bates added, "It's the first time this season we had a full game without a penalty on teams."
Not quite. Zuerlein was flagged for bouncing a kickoff out of bounds to start the second half.
"Oh well," Bates said.
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