NFL Nation: Johnny Hekker

DETROIT -- Sam Martin lined up to punt, looking like he has so many times during his first two years with the Detroit Lions.

Except two of the first three times he lined up to punt Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, he ended up not punting at all. Martin completed two fake punt passes in the first half Sunday, a 24-yard completion to Jed Collins that extended the first drive of the game and a 3-yard completion to Isa Abdul-Quddus that didn’t get enough to get a first down.

It is the first time a punter has thrown and completed two passes in a game since Nov. 11, 2012, when St. Louis’ Johnny Hekker completed two passes in a 24-24 tie against San Francisco.

Martin had never attempted a pass in his career before Sunday and was involved in one fake before that -- the Lions’ failed fake field goal at Pittsburgh last season, where Martin got crushed trying to run for a first down deep in Steelers' territory.

Miami also tried to get in the fake punt game, but illegally shifted on its converted fake punt run, eliminating the play and forcing the Dolphins to actually punt.

It was all part of a crazy first half that saw a 49-yard one-play drive by Detroit with a deep post for a touchdown to Calvin Johnson.

There were also interceptions on back-to-back plays in the second quarter: A James Ihedigbo pick of Ryan Tannehill that was returned 70 yards into Miami territory. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford tried to take advantage of Brent Grimes on Johnson on the next play, but Grimes leaped up and made a one-handed interception in the end zone to give the ball back to Miami.

Oh, and in the first quarter, Detroit held Miami to 1 total yard.
PHILADELPHIA -- The thin line between winning and losing an NFL football game is hard to bloat, but the St. Louis Rams seem to have a knack for finding a way to decrease an already minuscule margin for error every week.

Sunday's 34-28 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles offered plenty of examples of what can happen when the Rams team up with their opponent to beat the Rams. Taking nothing away from the Eagles, who have found a way to win four of five tries this season, the Rams once again provided plenty of help.

It's a trait found in each of the team's three losses this season and one that goes back for the better part of a decade. Against the Eagles, they consistently loaded up on silly penalties (10 for 82 yards), dropped passes (six by unofficial count), busted coverages (Jeremy Maclin's 24-yard touchdown catch was every bit as open as the 68-yard strike to Dez Bryant two weeks ago), struggled in protection (Trent Cole's sack and forced fumble resulted in a defensive touchdown) and even offered up a special teams miscue that had nothing to do with a yellow penalty flag (which is usually the norm).

"Overall, when you have penalties, you turn the ball over, you have a punt blocked for a touchdown, numerous drops, it's not winning football," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

For a team coming off a bye, the blame should be shared by all for the repeated mistakes. And it won't get much better as the Rams are only scratching the surface on a brutal schedule that includes nothing but 2013 playoff teams and the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals over the next seven weeks.

Although the Rams offered a praiseworthy second-half comeback, they set their own ominous tone on the game's first drive. Loading up in three tight end formations, the offense looked like a group poised to run the ball right at Philadelphia. Instead, they began with three head-scratching pass plays, each falling incomplete as the Eagles had Rams quarterback Austin Davis under siege.

Just 16 seconds into the game, the Rams sent punter Johnny Hekker onto the field. In most cases, Rams' special teams errors come in the form of a penalty, but they made an error much bigger this time.

Before every punt, the punt team is supposed to count defenders from the outside in. Depending on how many defenders are on the side, each blocker knows who his man is at the snap. According to the Rams' Chase Reynolds, somebody miscounted which left a gaping hole in the "A" gap for the Eagles' James Casey to run through untouched.

On the replay, each Rams blocker on the left side of the line turns to the left and the opening comes between linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong and tight end Cory Harkey. Reynolds had to choose between Casey and tight end Trey Burton, who was also his assignment on the play. Reynolds picked up Burton and Casey blocked the punt. Safety Chris Maragos scooped it up for the touchdown and a quick and easy 7-0 lead the Eagles would not surrender.

"The guy (on the outside) was really wide so sometimes for the guards and tackles to see the wide guys out there, it’s kind of difficult," Reynolds said. "But like I said, they did a fantastic job. Just one little error like that can cost you."

It wouldn't have cost the Rams so much had it been the only such error on the day. The penalty problems should be expected at this point and though they had dissipated some in the first three weeks, dropped passes have also been a hallmark of recent Rams teams. But while those result in lost downs or yards, the miscommunication continues to result in big plays.

Such was the case on Maclin's touchdown catch as cornerback Lamarcus Joyner was supposed to stay with Maclin but thought safety Rodney McLeod was supposed to take over the coverage. Instead, neither covered Maclin and he was wide open for the touchdown that made it 34-7.

"It was a miscommunication," McLeod said. "It was a formation we saw earlier and made the right call earlier but that time it was just a mistake but that was one thing we have got to preach on. That could be the difference in a ball game."

For the Rams, those types of plays couldn't be the difference in a ball game. They are.

Rams Camp Report: Day 11

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
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
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
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.
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams have just two representatives in Hawaii for Sunday's Pro Bowl but defensive end Robert Quinn did his part to ensure that punter Johnny Hekker will remain his teammate even in the exhibition game.

As one of two captains along with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees for Team Jerry Rice, Quinn & Co. drafted Hekker for Rice's squad in the first half of the televised draft Tuesday night.

The always-entertaining Hekker had been making jokes all week about how this would be his first time being drafted for anything affiliated with the NFL. The Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State in 2012.

Hekker took to Twitter to share his pride in being drafted Tuesday night.

The Rams' official Twitter account even got in on the act before the Pro Bowl draft took place.

Of course, for those not paying attention, the #DraftJohnny hashtag drew the anti-Sam Bradford crowd. While Rams fans like to joke that Hekker is the "real" Johnny Football, that idea was lost on plenty of fans thinking the Rams were teasing them with the idea of drafting Johnny Manziel in May.

In drafting Hekker, Team Rice did get more than just the punter who set the league record for net punting in 2013. Hekker is a former quarterback who took his share of snaps as the scout team quarterback for the Rams during the season. Perhaps those hoping to see a Ram named Johnny playing quarterback will get the chance to do so via some sort of trick play during Sunday's Pro Bowl.

Quinn, Hekker earn All-Pro nods

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
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.

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.

Pro Bowl selections: St. Louis Rams

December, 27, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- As expected, St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn was rewarded for his breakout 2013 season with a trip to the Pro Bowl, the NFL announced Friday night. Punter Johnny Hekker also got the nod for his first Pro Bowl berth.

Quinn and Hekker were clearly the Rams' most deserving candidates and though Quinn seemed a relative slam dunk based on the fan voting portion, Hekker's chances appeared a bit more tenuous. In the end, the coaches and players got both selections correct as the Rams will send teammates to Hawaii for the first time since 2006.

Powered by league-leading totals in sacks (18) and forced fumbles (seven), Quinn became the first Rams defensive player to earn the trip since 2003 when the team sent defensive end Leonard Little and safety Aeneas Williams as representatives.

The Rams were on a plane to Seattle when the results were announced but Quinn discussed his stance on awards in general Thursday afternoon.

"If you think about all that too much it'll kind of stiffen you up," Quinn said. "It makes you too robotic out there because you're trying to make all these plays. And it makes you overthink things. So you definitely put them out the window and go play."

The humble Quinn isn't one to toot his own horn but then, he hasn't needed to. There are plenty of people in the Rams locker room and on the coaching staff more than willing to plead his case. In fact, should Quinn finish the season with a flourish Sunday in Seattle there could be rewards far beyond a trip to the Pro Bowl in his future.

If Quinn can beat out Indianapolis' Robert Mathis for the sack title -- Mathis has 17.5 -- he'll take home the first Deacon Jones award for most sacks in a season. He'll also have a strong case as the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

"Robert is playing at an elite level," defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. "He's the best pass rusher in the game. He's the best pass rusher in the NFL. He gets chipped. He gets doubled. He can beat them with an edge rush. He can beat them with an inside move. He'll power rush guys. Since Week 8 or 9, teams have been doubling him and trying to move away from him and he still finds a way with his speed and tenacity to get to the quarterback ... So in my opinion, he's the best in the game."

The numbers would also indicate that Hekker has been the best in the game in 2013 at his position. His gross average of 46.08 is solid if unspectacular but that's not what has helped him stand out in 2013. Hekker's combination of hang time and directional punting has allowed him to lead the league in net punting with an average of 43.82 yards. He also has just four touchbacks on 71 attempts and has dropped 18 punts inside the opponent's 20.

With a strong effort against the Seahawks, Hekker could break San Francisco punter Andy Lee's season net punting record of 44 yards. He's the first Rams' specialist to earn the trip since kicker Jeff Wilkins in 2003 and the first punter since Dale Hatcher in 1985.

"With Johnny, the thing with him is we keep preaching consistency and I probably can't ask for any more consistency out of him," special teams coordinator John Fassel said. "I think he's been dynamite. He has also continued to improve, so again like the rest of the core guys, I think we've got young guys that we can really build around."

While other Rams -- notably linebacker Alec Ogletree, offensive tackle Jake Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis -- have had solid seasons, the Rams shouldn't really have any legitimate beef with the Pro Bowl selections.

For a team that hasn't had a player other than running back Steven Jackson representing it in Hawaii since 2007, getting the two players on the roster most deserving of the honor is a step in the right direction.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 1, 2013
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
ST. LOUIS – A look at three individual matchups to watch in Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wrap-up: Rams 15, Bills 12

December, 9, 2012

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.

Fantastic finish? Rams, 49ers cannot decide

November, 12, 2012
Danny AmendolaAP Photo/Jeff ChiuOn the first play of OT, Danny Amendola hauled in what would have been an 80-yard pass. The play was called back for an illegal formation.

SAN FRANCISCO -- There were so many compelling stories waiting to be written on this confounding November Sunday at Candlestick Park.

We'll have to settle for all of them.

The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams made it so, with a few assists from referee Clete Blakeman and his proactive officiating crew.

This 24-24 tie did more than fittingly push the all-time series record between the teams to 61-61-3 during regular seasons.

This one also reestablished the Rams' credentials as a newly competitive team under first-year coach Jeff Fisher.

It challenged San Francisco's status as NFC West bullies, serving notice, again, that the NFC West has become the sticks-and-stones division, to borrow a favorite phrase from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

It left the Rams at 3-5-1 while weakening the 49ers (6-2-1) heading into their "Monday Night Football" matchup against the Chicago Bears in Week 11.

It opened the door, at least a little, for Seattle (6-4) to push for a division title, not just for a wild-card berth.

Mostly, this game boggled the mind.

"I don't know exactly how it feels," Harbaugh said.

It didn't feel good.

"We didn't lose, but we didn't win, and if we didn't win, then I'm not really interested in it," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said.

There was so much evidence to process.

There was Rams quarterback Sam Bradford putting together the signature drive of his three-year-old career, a 14-play march to the go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 left in regulation. This was Bradford at his best. When the game was finally finished, he had completed 11 of 12 attempts to Danny Amendola and 26 of 39 overall.

"Big-picture wise, we scored points and we needed to score points," Fisher said. "We've been struggling to get the ball in the end zone and we got the ball in the end zone against a good defense."

There was Amendola returning from a nasty shoulder injury to make what would have been -- and perhaps what should have been, depending upon your view of Blakeman's crew -- the pivotal 80-yard reception in overtime. Officials flagged the Rams' illegal formation. Replays showed the call might have been correct, but officials threw the flag well after the fact and well down the field, and only after conferencing. Strange and anti-climactic.

"It was a roller coaster," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "I feel like we won two games, maybe lost one and tied one today. It was unbelievable. I've never been a part of anything like that. I don't know how to think."

There was more, including young 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick coming off the bench for a concussed Alex Smith to rally his team into position for what would have been the winning 41-yard field goal in overtime, had David Akers not missed wide left. The 49ers thought Smith suffered the concussion on a fourth-and-1 sneak. They cannot be sure how long Smith will miss, but they're a lesser team in the short term without him, no question.

Kaepernick can run, but can he run the offense? He struggled with accuracy under admittedly tough conditions. Smith had been getting all the meaningful reps recently as the 49ers successfully recommitted to their regular offense.

"They lost their quarterback, but obviously their backup is talented enough to not lose the game for them," Fisher said.

As endorsements goes, that one felt like a tie.

There was also Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein driving home what would have been -- and perhaps should have been, depending again upon one's view of officiating norms -- the winning 52-yard field goal some 12 minutes into overtime. We could fault the Rams for entrusting a rookie holder, Johnny Hekker, with clock management in such a situation. But this also seemed like a strange time to enforce the game clock to what seemed like a stricter standard than usual.

Zuerlein missed from 58.

"There shouldn't be a question as to whether or not you get a field goal off to win in overtime," Fisher said. "Apparently, Johnny lost track of the time. That happens. We don't want to say it's OK -- it's certainly not OK -- but he was focused on Greg and focused on protection and just lost track of it, I guess."

Hekker, a free agent the Rams signed in part for his arm, completed two fourth-down passes on fake punts, one from his own end zone and the other during that 14-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Hekker, empowered by Fisher to audible if the opponent rushes a cornerback at the expense of coverage, did just that with the first-half clock winding down and the Rams facing fourth-and-4 from their own 10. He later completed a fourth-and-8 pass to tight end Lance Kendricks for a 19-yard gain.

Late last season, the 49ers outfoxed the Rams in devastating fashion, Akers completing a pass to Michael Crabtree on a fake field goal when St. Louis didn't even know Crabtree was on the field.

The fake punts Sunday told us those days are over.

"The first one, we were trying to block the punt before the half," Harbaugh said. "We sent our corner. They can throw a pass when they see that, and that takes a lot of gumption to do it, and they did it. The second one, again, was well-executed on their part. Tough break for us to get that done on us, but tip your hat to them."

So much had happened by game's end that some players couldn't recall specifics.

Bradford could only smile and shrug when asked about the timeout St. Louis had called with 1:13 left in regulation. The Rams followed that timeout with Bradford's 2-yard scoring pass to Austin Pettis for a 24-21 lead, but the clock stoppage gave the 49ers sufficient time to respond.

Kaepernick, taking over at his own 22 with 1:03 to play, scrambled for 19 yards on first down. The clock stopped again on the next play when Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson suffered an injury. Kaepernick followed with a 10-yard scramble and a 13-yard pass to Kyle Williams. Five seconds remained when David Akers’ 33-yard field goal forced overtime.

The Rams didn't seem to care.

Bradford went deep for Amendola on the first play of overtime. Amendola separated from Carlos Rogers while the ball was in the air. He caught the ball at the San Francisco 45 and ran all the way to the 2 before Donte Whitner finally tackled him.

The game was only beginning -- again.

Each team would possess the ball two additional times before time ran out with St. Louis completing a 24-yard pass to near midfield. The Rams faced third-and-23 on the play after taking an 8-yard sack and a 5-yard penalty for delay.

The sack was particularly costly. It was also frustrating, at least for the Rams. They had first-and-10 from their own 38 with 24 seconds remaining. A couple more completed passes might have moved them into range for another field-goal try. Zuerlein has made five from 50-plus yards, including one from 60. But the Rams couldn't stop the pass-rush combination that New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had so famously complained about.

Left guard Shelley Smith wouldn't say much about it, but Saffold overheard the questioning and nodded from his stool at the adjoining locker. The nod suggested Saffold felt as though Justin Smith, the 49ers' All-Pro defensive end, had held Shelley Smith to give teammate Aldon Smith a clearer path to the quarterback -- just as Gilbride had said the 49ers did with regularity, and in violation of holding rules.

"Justin Smith did a real good job of faking the rush and being able to grab him," Saffold said. "That allowed Aldon Smith to get around. You try to collapse it down so they'll run into each other and slow down the rush, and we were able to do that maybe three or four times, but a couple times where [Shelley Smith] needs to be firm and I need to get depth, it's harder to pass off some of the run-play action that we saw."

That's a lot of Smiths -- Shelley, Aldon and Justin, to say nothing of Alex -- and a lot to sort out. Confused? So were some of the players.

"I didn't know you could tie," 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson said. "When I saw both sides walking onto the field, I was like, ‘Where’s everybody going?'"

There was no winning or losing locker room to visit, just a lot of mixed emotions.

"I'm pissed," Long said. "We're all pissed in here because we feel like we won that game. They played a really good game, too, and they are a really good team.

"But I think we're going to see a lot of those battles for years to come here because we are a different team now. I think they know that from playing us now."
Calm down, calm down. I realize punter-related items tend to whip the blog into an emotional frenzy, but in the interests of civility, please stifle your displays of excitement.

[+] EnlargeAndy Lee
ESPNSan Francisco punter Andy Lee had a huge game against NFC West rival Seattle.
This is not another gratuitous plea for page views.

It's our occasional look at ESPN's punter of the week, as selected by resident puntologist Mark Simon from ESPN Stats & Information.

Seattle's John Ryan won the honors previously. So did Arizona's Dave Zastudil. St. Louis' Johnny Hekker was separately named the NFC's top special-teams player for Week 5.

The San Francisco 49ers' Andy Lee edged Zastudil to top Simon's list for Week 7.

Here's what Simon had to say:
"Lee had five punts in last Thursday’s win over the Seahawks and could not have fared much better than he did.

"Lee put four punts inside the 15-yard line.

"On average for the game (including all drives, not just punts), the Seahawks started at their own 15. To that point, it was the worst average starting field position of any team in a game this season.

"Lee's biggest punt was a 66-yarder (net: 61 yards) with 1:48 left and the 49ers protecting a seven-point lead. That turned the field and pushed the Seahawks back their own 11-yard line.

"Since we’re giving props to punters for pinning the opponent deep, let’s also pay tribute to Dave Zastudil.

"Zastudil, who won Punter of the Week in Week 4, punted five times in situations in which the Cardinals were within 55 yards of the end zone. Zastudil pinned the Vikings inside the 15 on all five punts. Of those five, four were fair catches and one was returned for a net of minus-3 yards. He avoided having any touchbacks."

So, take that, rest of the NFL.

On a more serious note, punters and their coverage units do change expected points when they pin opponents deep. That's important for any team, and especially important in the NFC West, where teams play strong defense and tend to keep the games close.

Way to go, Andy Lee and peers.

Rapid Reaction: Rams 17, Cardinals 3

October, 5, 2012
Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals following the Rams' 17-3 victory Thursday night in the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: The Rams improved to 3-2, the first time they've had a winning record since the 2006 team was 4-3. They are 3-0 at home and 2-0 in the NFC West after going 4-26 against their division rivals from 2007 through last season. The Cardinals dropped to 4-1 while failing to reach 300 net yards for the fifth time this season. This game affirmed the NFC West's status as a hard-hitting division. Injury costs were high for both teams.

What I liked: Both teams started quickly on offense. Both teams played tenacious defense for most of the game. The Rams connected on two game-changing deep balls from Sam Bradford. Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb took a pounding, which was bad, but in the process he showed, again, that he's not brittle or lacking in toughness. He took eight sacks last week and nine in this one. Kolb kept battling and drove the Cardinals deep into Rams territory in the fourth quarter by completing 8 of 9 passes before his next completion gained only 3 yards on fourth-and-goal.

The Rams, despite problems on their offensive line, got Steven Jackson going for 76 yards on 18 carries. Rookie Daryl Richardson had nine carries for 35 yards. St. Louis hasn't gotten much push this season. The production from Jackson and Richardson was encouraging for the Rams.

What I didn't like: The injuries, the overmatched offensive lines, the dropped passes, the missed opportunities for pass connections well down the field, Jackson disappearing from the St. Louis offense for stretches, the Rams punting to Patrick Peterson from deep in their own territory while protecting a 14-point lead in the final minutes.

The Rams will not be the same offensively without top receiver Danny Amendola, who watched most of the game wearing a sling after suffering a shoulder injury while diving for a pass. It's not clear how much time Amendola might miss, but the Rams appeared lost without him until Bradford suddenly found rookie Chris Givens for a 51-yard touchdown to put away the game. The Cardinals lost running back Ryan Williams to a shoulder injury after the second-year back absorbed a brutal hit from Darian Stewart. Arizona was already without running backs Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Going after Peterson: In a big shock, the Rams attacked Cardinals cornerback Peterson and had success doing so, including when Bradford found Amendola for a 44-yard gain early. At times, the Rams' Janoris Jenkins looked like the best young corner on the field.

Quinn's big night: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn collected three sacks. Quinn has been quick off the edge this season, but power teams have exploited his weak run defense. The Cardinals posed no threat on the ground. That allowed Quinn to chase the quarterback without concern.

Legatron strikes: The Rams bucked convention when they cut veteran punter Donnie Jones and veteran kicker Josh Brown in favor of rookies. That move is paying off big.

Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein connected from 53 yards. He has made all 13 attempts this season. Zuerlein connected from 58 and 60 yards last week.

Rookie punter Johnny Hekker also showed off a strong leg, posting a 56.9-yard gross average with three of his seven punts downed inside the 20. Peterson had a healthy 15.2-yard average on five punt returns, but he didn't find the end zone -- a welcome change for the Rams, who allowed two Peterson return scores last season.

What's next: The Cardinals are home against Buffalo in Week 6. The Rams visit Miami.


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