NFC West: Johnny Hekker

2014 Predictions: Seattle Seahawks

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
8:00
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ESPN.com Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.

Week 1: Green Bay Packers

All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win


Week 2: at San Diego Chargers

The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win


Week 3: Denver Broncos

The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win


Week 5: at Washington Redskins

Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win


Week 6: Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win


Week 7: at St. Louis Rams

Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win


Week 8: at Carolina Panthers

The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss


Week 9: Oakland Raiders

Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win


Week 10: New York Giants

The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win


Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs

This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win


Week 12: Arizona Cardinals

The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win


Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers

It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss


Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles

This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win


Week 15: San Francisco 49ers

This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win


Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss


Week 17: St. Louis Rams

For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win


Predicted Record: 13-3

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Attempting to figure out what St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker can do for an encore a season after setting an NFL record for net punting isn't difficult.

Even with the bar now set to a higher standard, the goal is simple.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Hekker
AP Photo/Paul JasienskiSt. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker set an NFL record last season, averaging 44.23 net punting yards on 78 attempts.
"Do it again," Hekker said. "Last season at the beginning of the season Coach (John) Fassel sat us down and had some goals written down on a piece of paper. Mine was the Rams’ all-time net record. I didn’t even know what the mark was. And we went out and messed around and broke the NFL record, so it’s just a great feeling when you can set a goal, visualize it and then go out and achieve it. I think that’s something I’m going to try to do again this season. I’ve got a number in my head I’d like to attain, but that’s going to stay in my head for a while."

Considering Hekker exceeded even the goals set forth by demanding special-teams coach Fassel, it's hard to cast doubt that he and his coverage unit won't go out and reset the bar once again. It won't be easy after Hekker averaged 44.23 net punting yards on 78 attempts.

Entering his third season in the league, Hekker made great strides in 2013. As a rookie, he struggled with consistency and learning the ins and outs of directional punting, something Fassel demands from the position. The idea being that a well-angled punt with the proper hang time leaves little opportunity for return.

During his rookie season, Hekker hit his spot about half the time. Last year, Fassel and assistant special-teams coach Paul Boudreau Jr. were more surprised when he didn't hit the intended landmark.

"He was really good, and obviously the goal is to be better," Fassel said. "When you look at the all-time net punt record ... you don’t want to be worse than that, so I mean that’s a high standard. Johnny even knows, there’s some things that I’m not going to tell you that we talked about where he can improve and he knows he can improve.

"If we can make improvements in a couple of those things that we’ve talked about, then I don’t want to say it because it may give away some different things, but there’s room for improvement.”

Hekker also doesn't want to tip his hand on what some of his other goals are for the season. And considering his eccentric personality, it might be best not to try to dive too far into his mind. Hekker does openly acknowledge a few aspects of his game he'd like to improve.

Among the items on his must-improve list are adding hang time to force more fair catches, generally adding consistency and building a repetitive warmup routine.

Beyond that, Hekker is also looking to take a page out of the book of "Zoolander." Although his directional punting improved in 2013, Hekker says there's a noticeable difference between when he aims right and when he goes left.

"This offseason I put a lot of emphasis on working on left directional," Hekker said. "Last year I was pretty effective at putting the ball out of bounds and down the field going right, but going left is a little more difficult for a righty punter. But this season I want to be more effective at that."

Adding to Hekker's cause is the return of a young and talented coverage unit. Special-teams units are perpetually in a state of flux because those rosters spots are always up for grabs. But Hekker can rest easy knowing that at least core guys such as snapper Jake McQuaide, linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates, safety Rodney McLeod and receiver Stedman Bailey (after a four-game suspension) will be back in the mix.

That group struggled with silly penalties early last season, and though only a handful came on the punt team, there's reason to believe the coverage will improve with another year of experience and the addition of feisty defensive back Lamarcus Joyner.

Should Hekker and his teammates again find a way to break the net punting record, it will likely go with little fanfare as it did last season. That doesn't seem to be of much concern to Hekker. After all, he earned first-team All-Pro honors and his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.

And Hekker can point to the Hall of Fame induction of Ray Guy as proof that even punters can earn a place among the game's greats. He even has an addendum for NFL Network's Rich Eisen and his "punters are people, too" campaign.

"Punters are Hall of Famers, too," Hekker said, laughing. "Take that Rich Eisen."

It's way too early to put Hekker in that kind of company, but if he meets his goal of setting an NFL record for net punting every season, he'll have an argument to make.

Rams Camp Report: Day 11

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of St. Louis Rams training camp:
  • Wednesday's practice was a special teams only workout with no pads, which also meant very little excitement or activity. On the bright side, running back Zac Stacy did go through the practice after limping off during Tuesday's practice. The injury didn't seem serious at the time and it appears there is nothing to it as he was back to go through special teams drills Wednesday. Stacy said after the practice that he's feeling good and though he's unsure if he'll play in the preseason opener, made it clear he's ready to go if called upon.
  • In the absence of pads, the Rams didn't have their usual contact drills and one-on-ones near the end of the practice like they usually do. Defensive end Michael Sam is still getting a lot of work as a blocker on the respective return units and that appears to be his best shot to make the roster. I'd be surprised if Sam didn't get a lot of work on both special teams and defense against the Saints on Friday night.
  • Punter Johnny Hekker is unfazed by the lack of attention that came with the punt team's record-setting performance in 2013 and told me after he spent the morning booming punts that he's looking to get better in 2014. In addition to breaking the record again, Hekker offered left directional punting as an area he'd like to improve going into the season. There are other personal goals he has in store but he preferred to keep those to himself.
  • It's hard to take roll in special teams practices because you never know exactly who is and isn't supposed to be there. But there were a few sideline observers who have been missing practice all week. Running back Trey Watts and fullback Kadeem Jones were among those watching from the sideline.
  • Although there wasn't much happening on the field Wednesday, there were some special visitors to the practice. Super Bowl XXXIV winners Torry Holt, Andy McCollum, Grant Wistrom and D'Marco Farr took in the practice. Farr is a regular at practice in his role as the team's radio color analyst. But Holt dropped by in advance of resuming his color analyst duties for the Rams' preseason games. McCollum and Wistrom were just stopping by to visit. The quartet took the opportunity to catch up. They'll get another chance later this year when the Rams celebrate the 15th anniversary of that championship season before the Monday night game against San Francisco on Oct. 13.
  • The Rams are entering final preparations for the preseason opener Friday night against New Orleans. They'll have their usual day before game walk-through Thursday before Friday's game.

Pair of Rams fare well in Pro Bowl

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
4:30
PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams were finally represented again in the Pro Bowl on Sunday night and punter Johnny Hekker and defensive end Robert Quinn mostly did what they did all year in their opportunities.

As part of Team Rice, named for captain Jerry Rice, Quinn and Hekker did their part in helping their team to a 22-21 victory against Team (Deion) Sanders.

Hekker and Quinn had vowed earlier in the week to play with their usual effort and hoped that their fellow players would as well. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, that's exactly what happened as this Pro Bowl appeared far more competitive than any in recent vintage.

Although some bad weather (yes, at the Pro Bowl) threw things off a bit for both sides, the game featured some big hits and came down to the final seconds before Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker's 67-yard field goal came up short to clinch the victory for Team Rice.

As for Quinn and Hekker, both showed at least glimpses of the qualities that landed them in Hawaii in the first place.

Quinn actually opened the game with an apparent sack and nearly forced a fumble of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck on the first play from scrimmage. A late flag came in saying Quinn was offsides but in real time it appeared Quinn had just timed the snap perfectly. Later, Quinn would make up for it by chasing down Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and dropping him for a sack. Both Luck and Newton were on Quinn's regular season sack victim list.

All told, Quinn finished with a tackle, a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass defended and a quarterback hit. Team Rice finished with five total sacks.

Hekker, meanwhile, was up to his usual tricks of hitting high, well-angled punts that were difficult to return. He had four opportunities and finished with a gross average of 49 yards with two of those punts landing inside the 20. Likewise, Hekker's hang time and directional punts were effective in terms of limiting returns as Team Sanders managed 8 punt return yards to leave Hekker with a net average of 47 yards per punt.

It was a solid showing for the two Rams participants in a game that finally showed some signs of life under its new format.

Pair of Rams fare well in Pro Bowl

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
4:30
PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams were finally represented again in the Pro Bowl on Sunday night and punter Johnny Hekker and defensive end Robert Quinn mostly did what they did all year in their opportunities.

As part of Team Rice, named for captain Jerry Rice, Quinn and Hekker did their part in helping their team to a 22-21 victory against Team (Deion) Sanders.

Hekker and Quinn had vowed earlier in the week to play with their usual effort and hoped that their fellow players would as well. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, that's exactly what happened as this Pro Bowl appeared far more competitive than any in recent vintage.

Although some bad weather (yes, at the Pro Bowl) threw things off a bit for both sides, the game featured some big hits and came down to the final seconds before Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker's 67-yard field goal came up short to clinch the victory for Team Rice.

As for Quinn and Hekker, both showed at least glimpses of the qualities that landed them in Hawaii in the first place.

Quinn actually opened the game with an apparent sack and nearly forced a fumble of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck on the first play from scrimmage. A late flag came in saying Quinn was offsides but in real time it appeared Quinn had just timed the snap perfectly. Later, Quinn would make up for it by chasing down Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and dropping him for a sack. Both Luck and Newton were on Quinn's regular season sack victim list.

All told, Quinn finished with a tackle, a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass defended and a quarterback hit. Team Rice finished with five total sacks.

Hekker, meanwhile, was up to his usual tricks of hitting high, well-angled punts that were difficult to return. He had four opportunities and finished with a gross average of 49 yards with two of those punts landing inside the 20. Likewise, Hekker's hang time and directional punts were effective in terms of limiting returns as Team Sanders managed 8 punt return yards to leave Hekker with a net average of 47 yards per punt.

It was a solid showing for the two Rams participants in a game that finally showed some signs of life under its new format.

Quinn, Hekker earn All-Pro nods

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
4:30
PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- The trip to Hawaii that goes with a Pro Bowl invitation is perhaps the greatest tangible benefit of any postseason award, but landing a spot on the Pro Bowl team doesn't come with nearly the esteem that being named first-team All-Pro does.

Quinn
On Friday afternoon, the Associated Press released its All-Pro teams for 2013, and for the first time since 2003, the Rams were represented. In fact, two Rams received the honor as defensive end Robert Quinn and punter Johnny Hekker continue to add to their postseason haul of honors.

While the Pro Bowl takes enough players to fill out two teams to play a game, the All-Pro team recognizes what the 50 voters deem to be the best at their positions in the NFL. For example, Quinn is one of two defensive ends to make the team (along with Houston's J.J. Watt), and Hekker is the only punter on the list.

Of course, it should be no surprise that either player made the list.

Quinn posted a thoroughly dominant season from his right end spot, racking up 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles, and he improved dramatically against the run. He remains a strong candidate to win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.

Hekker's status might not have been as easily recognized since punter is a position that often is overlooked. But the voters got it right in seeing that Hekker put together a record-setting year in only his second season. He set the NFL record for nut punting with an average of 44.2 yards per attempt as the Rams allowed just 79 return yards on his 78 attempts.

The Rams haven't had a representative on the Associated Press All-Pro first team since 2003 when receiver Torry Holt, tackle Orlando Pace and defensive end Leonard Little made it.
ST. LOUIS -- Throughout the 2013 NFL season, a nine-member voting panel handed out a weekly award honoring the best punter for that slate of games. With the season over, that group convened a final time and selected the St. Louis Rams' Johnny Hekker as ESPN.com's Punter of the Year.

Hekker
Hekker received seven of nine votes from the panel, easily walking away with the honor after a record-setting season. The second-year punter out of Oregon State set a league record by averaging a net total of 44.2 yards per punt. He also grossed 46.3 yards per attempt.

Even the advanced metrics took note of Hekker's performance as he led the NFL in expected points added per punt, a newer statistic that assesses punter value based on situational performance. Hekker attempted 78 punts and his ability to combine directional punts with hang time allowed the Rams' coverage units to hold opposing returners to a paltry 79 yards.

Drew Butler, who punted for Pittsburgh and was on the voting panel, offered some high praise for Hekker.

"Hekker really had an amazing year," Butler said. "A 44.2 net is phenomenal, a great testament to his ability to win field position."

Hekker earned his first Pro Bowl invitation last week for his efforts only 48 hours before a strong final showing in Seattle sealed up his record-setting performance. On Monday, Hekker credited the work of his coverage units in helping him achieve the record while acknowledging the record's meaning for him personally.

"It means a lot to me," Hekker said. "That’s a standard that all punters kind of measure their season to. 'How was I able to swing the field advantage for my team?' Thank God I had some of the youngest, most aggressive playmakers that have come up in the NFL this year. All I know is that myself and the 10 others that are with me are part of the best punt team that’s ever played in the NFL. I couldn’t be more proud of the growth that the young guys showed throughout the whole season. Them learning, coach (John Fassel) teaching us the ins and outs of the game, cleaning up our mistakes. We finished strong, and that’s what it’s all about."

The Rams' special teams as a whole struggled early in the season with a seemingly endless parade of flags, though most of those errors came on return units and had little to do with punt coverage. By the end of the season, the special teams had become one of the strongest units on the team, save for some embarrassing and silly penalties in the season finale against Seattle.

Inconsistency was a common theme for the Rams this season, but Hekker deserves credit for being the one consistently excellent performer on the team.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
7:21
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SAN FRANCISCO -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

What it means: Now that the Rams sit at 5-7 on the season, any flicker of playoff hope they had has essentially vanished in the competitive NFC. They're a full three games behind San Francisco for the No. 6 spot in the conference and still trail a handful of other teams just to get into the mix. Any reasonable person wouldn't have expected the Rams to win their final six games to get into the playoff hunt, but at least now those dreams can be put to bed.

In the bigger picture, the Rams again found out just how far they have to go to become a contender in the powerful NFC West Division. After two impressive wins against Chicago and Indianapolis, the Niners knocked out the Rams with relative ease for the second time this season.

Stock watch -- up: Punter Johnny Hekker -- There's not much to choose from after another mostly ugly outing for the Rams, but Hekker was excellent again in this one and deserves praise for the work he's done all season. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt, and the 49ers mustered only two returns for 5 yards.

Stock watch -- down: Rams pass-catchers -- As is the case in a loss like this one, there's plenty to choose from here. But it's worth pointing out some of the costly drops and missteps from the Rams' receivers and tight ends. Receiver Chris Givens had a few, and tight end Jared Cook also missed some catchable passes. Quarterback Kellen Clemens wasn't very accurate, but that's nothing new. In recent weeks, his pass-catchers have at least been hanging on to the ones that are catchable.

Penalty-palooza: After accumulating just four penalties against Chicago, the Rams made up for lost time against the 49ers. They committed 11 penalties for 105 yards and were particularly guilty in the first half. In the opening 30 minutes, the Rams had seven infractions for 60 yards. Most of those were against the defense, effectively keeping the San Francisco offense moving and allowing the 49ers to build a 10-point halftime lead.

What's next: The Rams return to St. Louis for a few days before heading west for the second consecutive week with a trip to Arizona to take on the Cardinals. While St. Louis has little chance to leapfrog the 49ers, the game against the Cardinals at least provides an opportunity for it to start crawling out of the NFC West basement.

Rams-Bears: Matchup breakdown

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
12:30
PM ET
ST. LOUIS – A look at three individual matchups to watch in Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears.

Long
Rams left tackle Jake Long vs. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers

A couple years ago this might have been one of the premiere individual battles you could find anywhere in the NFL. Make no mistake, Long and Peppers are still very good players but they might not be at the level they once were.

Still, this is one of the most important matchups in this game. Peppers’ combination of speed and athleticism remains even if the numbers aren’t jumping off the page as they once did.

“He’s a great player, day in and day out,” Long said. “He’s got such long arms, he’s got power, he’s got speed to take down the edge, so it’s a good battle to go up against him. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.”

Through the first 10 games, Peppers has posted 29 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Long has struggled against elite rushers this year, particularly with Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware, a player not unlike Peppers in terms of size and skill set. But Long has also been much better in the past month or so since the Rams switched to a more run-heavy attack.

If the Rams can get the run game going – an area Long can help jump start – it should allow for the Rams to keep Peppers off balance and Long to dictate the matchup.

Jenkins
Rams cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson vs. Bears receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall

There’s no receiver combination in the league more physically imposing than Jeffery and Marshall. That duo has caused nightmares for opposing defenses with its ability to outjump and outmuscle opposing corners for the ball.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall has 64 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns this season while the 6-3, 216-pound Jeffery has 54 catches for 818 yards and three touchdowns.

There isn’t a cornerback duo in the league equipped to match Marshall and Jeffery in terms of sheer size.

“It’s a matchup issue,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re very, very talented. Both quarterbacks Jay [Cutler], obviously was playing well before he went down, but Josh [McCown] does a really good job putting the ball up to them. They’ve got confidence. These guys can outjump and outreach. We’ve got a battle on our hands, but our corners … ‘Jenks’ is a leaper and ‘Tru’s' got length, so we’ll just see how it goes.”

At 5-10, 198 pounds, Jenkins is the smaller of the Rams’ options and must be on top of his game in terms of timing his leap. He’s had mixed success in those situations this year but hasn’t faced a challenge of this size just yet.

Johnson has improved in 2013 and at 6-2, 208 pounds is more suited to take on players like Marshall and Jeffery.

The Rams have been more aggressive in coverage in recent weeks, playing more press coverage at the line of scrimmage. That may be the best way to keep the Bears duo from winning jump balls. A good jam at the line of scrimmage can throw off timing and allow the Rams defensive line to get after McCown before he can get the ball down the field.

Hester
Rams punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein vs. Bears returner Devin Hester

Rams fans still have nightmares about Hester’s game in St. Louis in 2006 when he returned two kicks for touchdowns.

Much has changed in terms of Hester’s role since then as he no longer contributes much to the offense and has even been in the mix as a cornerback. But he remains Chicago’s primary returner with a strong kick return average of 28.23 yards and 13.25 yards per punt return to go with a touchdown.

“He’s not playing any offense, but he’s still very, very dangerous,” Fisher said. “I think, considering the fact that his role on offense has been reduced or limited, he’s going to be more inclined to bringing the ball out and has that desire to make plays. So, it makes him very dangerous and they’ve always had great confidence in him.”

The onus falls on Hekker and Zuerlein to help neutralize the player who is probably the most dangerous returner in league history.

Hekker has been as good as any punter in the league so far in 2013, leading the league in net punting with an average of 43.51 yards.

Zuerlein hasn’t yielded much in the way of returns, either, averaging 65.88 yards per kickoff, fifth most in the league. The coverage units have been good in this regard, too, as Rams opponents have started an average of 80.4 yards from the end zone on their drives, second furthest away in the league.

Rams-Cards: Saturday matchup breakdown

September, 7, 2013
9/07/13
11:00
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – Sunday’s season opener between the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals contains plenty of intriguing matchups, making it difficult to boil it down to just a few.

Here are three to keep an eye on when the teams kick it off Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams P Johnny Hekker/coverage team vs. Arizona PR Patrick Peterson

Two years ago, Cardinals punt returner Peterson nearly beat the Rams by himself with multiple dynamic returns, including a “walk-off” return in overtime in the game in Arizona.

The Rams added Hekker before last season and the then-rookie did his part in helping to keep Peterson at bay. After two return touchdowns and an average of 27.8 yards per return in 2011, Peterson's numbers against the Rams fell to 15 yards per attempt last year.

Hekker helped neutralize Peterson through a combination of hang time and kicking toward the sideline. The concept is simple: Use the sideline as an extra defender, and get enough hang time to allow the coverage to get down the field.

In the first meeting against Peterson and the Cardinals, Hekker averaged 56.9 yards with a net of 46 on seven attempts, with three punts dropped inside the 20. That earned him NFC special teams player of the week honors.

An award won’t offer much comfort this time around, but Hekker acknowledged that it could at least help from a mental standpoint.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Hekker
AP Photo/Paul Jasienski"You can't bank on last year's success with a guy like that," Rams punter Johnny Hekker said of Arizona's Patrick Peterson.
“The only thing it helps is as far as confidence,” Hekker said. “I think that’s something I’ll carry into this week and I’ll carry it kind of into this season. Having a whole year of experience. You can’t bank on last year’s success with a guy like that. They know that and we are all amped up and anxious to go. It’s going to be exciting.”

Rams LT Jake Long/LG Chris Williams vs. Arizona DE/DT Calais Campbell

Cardinals defensive lineman Campbell has been a thorn in the Rams’ side seemingly for as long as he’s been in the league. The big, long-armed Campbell creates havoc with his pass-rushing skills and strength against the run.

Making matters more complicated are those Inspector Gadget arms, which add a 35.5-inch wingspan to his 6-foot-7 frame. In his past six games against the Rams, Campbell has 16 tackles, six sacks, three batted passes and a blocked field goal.

In defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ new scheme, Campbell will work inside and out, but mostly lined up opposite starting Rams left tackle Long and expected starting guard Williams.

Campbell’s ability combined with those long arms makes him a tough matchup for either lineman.

“It helps him a great deal,” Long said. He’s very tall, strong, a great player. So you have just got to get into him, attack him and not let him lock his arms out and get away from you, because if that happens, he’s good with that.”

Of course, the easiest way to neutralize Campbell is to have him on the sideline. He was added to the injury report as questionable with a quadriceps injury suffered in Friday's practice. Campbell missed the second meeting between the teams last season with a calf ailment.

Rams WR Tavon Austin vs. Arizona CB Tyrann Mathieu

Because the Rams and Cardinals have been playing each other for so long, it’s easy to find a track record of the above matchups. This one, though, involves perhaps the league’s two most exciting rookie talents.

Austin and Mathieu are set to make their NFL debuts Sunday and will probably see plenty of each other, with Austin working in the slot for the Rams and Mathieu handling primary slot-corner duties for Arizona in nickel packages.

Obviously, the duo has yet to face each other in the NFL, but they did see each other back in a college matchup in 2011. Mathieu’s LSU team easily disposed of Austin’s West Virginia squad that day (47-21), but Austin had his way with the Tigers defense.

Austin finished that game with 11 catches for 187 yards, and though he wasn’t regularly matched up with Mathieu, he did get the better of the player then known as “Honey Badger” a few times.

Mathieu has impressed observers in Arizona nearly as much as Austin has done in St. Louis. They’ll probably see much more of each other Sunday, and the winner could strongly influence the game’s outcome.

“(He’s a) very instinctive, good player, plays way bigger than his size, got good coverage skills, good blitzer,” Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said of Mathieu. “(He’s a) good football player, real good football player. He and Tavon have had some battles in the past. It’ll be fun to watch them go at it.”


The St. Louis Rams' Greg Zuerlein connected on all 13 field goal tries, including four from 50-plus yards, during his first five NFL games. He made 10 of 18 tries from that point forward, missing six of nine kicks from at least 50 yards.

Some of the misses were from unreasonable distances, but the pattern was pretty clear. That is why John Fassel, the Rams' special-teams coach, advised Zuerlein to spend much of his offseason resting. Zuerlein, who had kicked almost nonstop from college through the pro evaluation process and into his 2012 rookie season, did not kick for three months during the recently completed offseason. The idea was for Zuerlein to gain strength so he could remain more consistent throughout his second season.

Fortunately for us, Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and snapper Jake McQuaide did participate in one of those "Dude Perfect" trick-shot videos. Hekker is the star of the show, but Zuerlein also makes an appearance, at one point banking a field goal try off a basketball backboard and through the hoop.

"I was out here while they were filming it," Fassel told reporters Sunday, "and it took them a couple hours, and every single one you see is legit -- no trick photography. The one off the roof 70 yards into the pool was ridiculous."

Some of the shots took about 20 takes to execute, Fassel estimated, a figure he considered amazingly low given the level of difficulty.

Around the NFC West: Lee gets the nod

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
9:30
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Few things get the blood pumping around here quite like a good punter discussion.

Gratuitous punting references obviously drive traffic all around the web. Here in the NFC West, we just happen to be blessed with multiple outstanding punters. I've tried to handle the excess responsibly, but it's just tough not to sensationalize given the subject matter.



I mean, who doesn't get excited about a solid net average? What kid doesn't dream about pinning his opponent inside the 5?

This past week, Andy Lee's 54-yard net average for the San Francisco 49ers was the highest all season in the NFL for any player with four or more punts. That was one reason Mark Simon, ESPN's professor of punting, chose Lee as his punter of the week.

"Lee had three key fourth-quarter punts that netted an average of 55 yards, including a 59-yarder with 3:09 remaining," Simon said. "Lee fared well via advanced metrics as well. He had the second-best expected points added per punt among those with multiple punts. He ranks third in the NFL in punts inside the 20 and second in net average."

Lee was also Simon's choice for punter of the week against Seattle in Week 7 even though some in the punting community thought Arizona's Dave Zastudil might have made a better choice with all five of his punts downed inside the Minnesota 15-yard line that week.

Zastudil, Simon's top punter for Week 4, would have been a worthy choice this week as well.

"After placing a franchise-record six punts inside the 20-yard line in Arizona’s 38-10 win over the Detroit Lions, Zastudil needs to drop just five more inside the opponents’ red zone to have the most by any punter in a single season," Bob McManaman writes in the Arizona Republic. "The record for punts placed inside the 20 is 42 and it’s shared by three punters, including the Cardinals’ Ben Graham in 2009. Andy Lee of the 49ers also did it (2007), as did Steve Weatherford of the Jets (2010)."

Seattle's Jon Ryan has won Simon's award multiple times this season. St. Louis' Johnny Hekker is a one-time winner.

Carroll explains fake punt while up 30

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
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Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he regretted executing a fake punt while holding a 47-17 lead over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

"I feel bad about this," Carroll told reporters after the 50-17 victory. "That was part of our game plan. It was something I could have called off and I didn’t. It was an automatic for us, and I didn’t do it. It happened. We’re trying to make first downs, so I let it go. It’s unfortunate that it comes across that we’re doing something wrong there. That’s my fault totally for not stopping it from happening."

This explanation holds up, in my view. The St. Louis Rams had one of these "automatic" fake calls in play against San Francisco in Week 10. Punter Johnny Hekker had the green light to throw the ball once the 49ers left a receiver uncovered on the perimeter. Hekker completed that pass from his own end zone.

According to Carroll, the Seahawks had a fake set up against the Bills if Buffalo showed Seattle a certain defensive look. When the Seahawks got that look, their players went with the fake. Carroll could have removed the fake as an option before the play, and in retrospect, that is what he said he should have done.

Reporters asked Bills coach Chan Gailey about the fake punt.

"No comment," Gailey replied.

Wrap-up: Rams 15, Bills 12

December, 9, 2012
12/09/12
4:01
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Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 15-12 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 14:

What it means: The Rams have won three consecutive games for the first time since 2006. Quarterback Sam Bradford enhanced his already strong fourth-quarter credentials with a game-winning drive featuring outstanding plays from his receiving targets as well. St. Louis improved to 6-6-1 and kept itself alive in the NFC playoff picture. This was a huge road victory for the Rams, who had gone 1-6 outside the NFC West before Sunday. The defense deserves credit for hanging tough and keeping the Bills' scoring down without enough help for most of the game.

What I liked: Bradford entered this game ranked third behind Jay Cutler and Peyton Manning in fourth-quarter Total QBR. Austin Pettis helped him out on that front with a sensational fourth-and-1 grab on a pass well behind him as the Rams drove in the final two minutes. Bradford threaded a 22-yarder to Lance Kendricks over the middle on the same drive. Brandon Gibson also emerged in key spots, including on his 8-yard scoring reception to take the lead in the final minute. With that, Bradford led the winning 84-yard touchdown drive to salvage what had been a dispiriting performance from the offense.

The Rams' defense bent, but it rarely broke despite getting little help from the offense most of the way. Stopping the Bills after Buffalo took over at its own 49-yard line in the fourth quarter was critical. The Rams got 2.5 sacks from their starting defensive tackles, including 1.5 from rookie Michael Brockers. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar preserved the victory with an interception in the final 30 seconds.

Bradford and Gibson got going in the third quarter as St. Louis took the lead. Bradford also showed his running ability, picking up 12 yards on a third-and-9.

What I didn't like: The offense couldn't get anything going by ground or air through the first half and too much of the second. The Rams joined the Kansas City Chiefs as the only teams to go scoreless against the Bills through a first half. The Bills' defensive front, improved in recent weeks as its health has improved, appeared to have its way with the Rams up front. Bradford took too many hits. For too long, the Rams' receivers appeared to have a hard time getting open. The weather was wet and the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium looked like a slow track.

Rookie punter Johnny Hekker mishandled a punt snap and took a hard hit while trying to punt the ball, giving the Bills possession at the St. Louis 37.

What's next: The Rams are home against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15.

Seahawks to 49ers to Rams: Jenkins wins

November, 28, 2012
11/28/12
10:40
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The NFC's defensive player of the week hails from the NFC West for a third consecutive week and the sixth time in 12 weeks overall this season.

St. Louis Rams rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins won the honors after returning two interceptions for touchdowns during a 31-17 victory over Arizona in Week 12. The San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith and the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman won the award over the two previous weeks.

The NFC West has now accounted for 11 weekly award winners.

Recapping NFC West honors to this point in the season:
  • Week 2: Arizona's Calais Campbell wins defensive honors.
  • Week 3: Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald wins offensive honors while Seattle's Chris Clemons wins defensive honors.
  • Week 4: San Francisco's Patrick Willis (defense) and St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein (special teams) win honors.
  • Week 5: St. Louis punter Johnny Hekker wins special-teams honors.
  • Week 7: San Francisco's Andy Lee wins special-teams honors.
  • Week 8: San Francisco's Alex Smith wins offensive honors.
  • Week 10: Richard Sherman wins defensive honors.
  • Week 11: Aldon Smith wins defensive honors.
  • Week 12: Jenkins wins defensive honors.
Note: The 49ers also had two interception returns for touchdowns in Week 12. And, as the Rams noted, Jenkins is the third Rams rookie to win the honors this season.

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