ATLANTA — As Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff peeled off his helmet and headed toward the sidelines in the second quarter of the NFC championship, Blake Countess settled into his upback position and scanned the New Orleans Saints’ formation, checking whether their coverage was susceptible to the fake punt called by Rams special teams coach John Fassel.
Punter Johnny Hekker may have been the one who threw the first-down pass and extended a drive that eventually turned into the Rams’ first points of their comeback victory, but it’s Countess who really took on the role of quarterback.
“He’s our Swiss Army knife,” Fassel said at Super Bowl media day on Monday. “He’s on every phase of every [special teams] play. He’s taking over 30 snaps a game just on special teams.”
Countess hit some bumps in the road after shining for legendary coach Bob Milloy at Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland, from 2007-2011, but he’s found a home on Fassel’s vaunted special teams units and is an unsung hero of the Rams’ run to Super Bowl LIII, where they will face the New England Patriots on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“He’s just one of those guys that is just steady,” Milloy told Capital News Service. “He’s not spectacular, but he is, in his own way. You have to be spectacular to be in that league four years.”
Countess’ natural athleticism as a cornerback at Good Counsel helped earn him a scholarship to Michigan, where he made starts as a true freshman in 2011 and was slated to take a step forward during his sophomore campaign. Just two drives into the 2012 season-opener, however, he tore his ACL.
“I had a great camp and I was feeling good about myself,” Countess said at media day. “[After the injury], I had to look at myself in the mirror and really bounce back.”
Following surgery to repair his knee, Countess returned to the field in 2013 and garnered All-Big Ten honors. But his college career had another twist when Jim Harbaugh took over before the 2015 season. Cornerbacks in Harbaugh’s defenses are typically expected to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, and standing at 5-foot-10, 191 pounds, Countess relies more on his speed than strength.
The Owings Mills, Maryland, native transferred to Auburn for his final year of eligibility, which provided him the opportunity to show his versatility. In addition to playing cornerback for the Tigers, Countess made starts at nickelback and safety.
“Being able to add that to my resume at the level of the SEC was exactly what I needed at the time,” Countess said.
Moving around the field wasn’t entirely new for Countess. He’s always been defensive-minded, but Milloy and his then-offensive coordinator, Andy Stefanelli, also used Countess on offense.
“That ability to adapt and go where you’re needed has served him well throughout his career,” Stefanelli told Capital News Service.
After Countess showed some of that adaptability at Auburn, the Philadelphia Eagles selected him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft. Philadelphia cut Countess after the preseason, though, and despite having battled adversity during college, Countess said the experience of being cut was uniquely challenging.
“I don’t think anything can prepare you for that moment,” Countess said. “[But] this league is a business. If you play long enough, you more than likely will get cut at some point.”
Stefanelli, meanwhile, hoped Countess’ over-before-it-started stint with the Eagles wasn’t the end of the road in the NFL.
“If you give him a chance, he’s going to show you what he can do,” said Stefanelli, who took over as Good Counsel head coach following Milloy’s retirement in 2017. “But being a little bit of an undersized guy, you wonder, ‘Is he going to get the opportunity?’”
The Rams picked up Countess early in the 2016 season, but he didn’t make his NFL debut until Week 12 of Los Angeles’ 4-12 campaign. Sean McVay took over the Rams’ head coaching job the next year and overhauled most of the coaching staff, leaving Fassel as one of the only holdovers from the Jeff Fisher regime. That allowed Fassel and Countess to continue to build their budding partnership.
Countess has always shown an affinity for special teams, Milloy said, as evidenced by his numerous returning touchdowns at Good Counsel. He’s filled in as a returner at times with the Rams, but most of his impact comes from the other areas of special teams.
“Blake is a tireless worker,” Hekker said. “[He’s] a core contributor on every phase of special teams. He’s a guy that has earned a lot of respect in our locker room.”
Fassel said plays like the fake punt against the Saints are only possible because of Countess’ work ethic.
“What Jared Goff does every down is basically what [Countess] does on punts. … There’s a trust level where you can’t just throw anybody in there to do it,” Fassel said. “If you’re nodding off in a meeting or you’re jacking around in practice, we’re probably not calling it, or we’re messing it up.”
Countess’ drive and tenacity allowed him to overcome the knee injury and coaching change at Michigan, the disappointment of being cut by Philadelphia and being undersized at a position that continues to demand more height and strength.
And now, his dedication and attention to detail helped the Rams to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2001.
“If you’re not one of those 22 starters, you have to have some special teams value or you will not be on the roster for very long,” Countess said. “If you’re willing to take a rep off or slack in one area, ultimately that’s going to come back and bite you. That’s kind of the approach I’ve had since I was little.
“I’m a [special-teamer] right now. That’s my role this year. … And on special teams, we’ve made plays that dictate the outcome of games.”
James Crabtree-Hannigan is a senior in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, covering the Super Bowl for the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.