Coming off what was arguably its best outing of the season against Indianapolis, the Rams’ kickoff and punt coverage units will see perhaps its most challenging test of the season this week, when they will look to corral the Bears’ Devin Hester.
“I’d probably say so, and I think every other team would say so, too,” special teams coordinator John Fassel said. “With his whole career taken into account, for sure. (Patrick) Peterson’s good, there’s a lot of good guys, but over a career? This is the guy.”
Since entering the league in 2006, Hester quickly established himself among the best returners in the NFL, and has returned 13 punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns, including an 81-yard punt return for a score in Week 7 against Washington. That was his 19th total return touchdown, which is tied with Deion Sanders for the most all-time. Sunday will also mark Hester’s first game in St. Louis since he returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns on Monday Night Football in 2006.
For the year, Hester is averaging 13.3 yards per return, though he has had the opportunity to return just 12 punts in 10 games, a byproduct of teams often electing to avoid him due to his big-play potential.
In something of an anomaly, Hester has remained among the league’s best returners in his eighth NFL season, a rarity for many at his position. In a move that may contribute to his ability to perform at a high level late into his career, the Bears have relieved Hester from most of his offensive duties this year, allowing his legs to stay fresh for roughly a half dozen plays a game.
“He’s not playing any offense, but he’s still very, very dangerous,” Rams Head Coach Jeff 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.”
Conversely, the Rams have shown equally great confidence in their coverage unit, which enters this week as one of the most successful units in the league, highlighted by the team’s Week 10 win in Indianapolis, when they limited the Colts to a total of 85 return yards on four kickoffs and three punts. Led by P Johnny Hekker’s league-best net punting average of 43.5, and K
The success of the Rams’ special teams units has been a season-long progression, a development that has taken place more as a result of repetition than sweeping changes. Early-season struggles with penalties in the return game appear to be a thing of the past, at least for the time being.
“What did we change? Honestly, nothing,” Fassel said. “We haven’t changed anything. We’ve just worked hard and getting better at the things we’ve been talking about, and they’ve been doing it, so we have changed anything.”
Hekker, whose season-long performance could have him in contention for a Pro Bowl nod at the conclusion of the year, looks forward to the opportunity to be tested by one of the best ever at his position.
“Every week, every team has a guy who is capable of scoring the ball when they touch the ball in space,” Hekker said. But Devin’s one of the best, and arguably the best punt returner/kick returner in the NFL, maybe NFL history, some would say. We just add that to the list of challenges. Every week, we have plenty of challenges…just adding another notch on the belt, hopefully.”