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Hekker, Coverage Teams Lead Special Year for Rams' Special Teams Units

Posted Jan 17, 2014

During the first half of the season, envisioning the type of year the Rams’ special teams units would put together could have proven challenging.

Though second-year punter Johnny Hekker was off to a stellar start, and kicker Greg Zuerlein opened the year by connecting on his first 14 field-goal attempts, much of the attention directed toward the Rams’ special teams was focused on the team’s return game. The Rams utilized a group consisting of mostly rookies and second-year players on both the return and coverage units, and early on, the youth showed. The Rams ranked among the league leaders in penalties on punt and kickoff returns, at times nullifying the effect of rookie returner Tavon Austin.

The group, led by special teams coordinator John Fassel, made significant strides in technique and positioning in the season’s second half. The youthful mistakes that plagued the unit early in the year faded significantly as the considerable talent of the return units became increasingly evident. No longer shackled by flags downfield, Austin finished the year averaging 22.1 yards per kickoff return and 8.5 yards per returned punt, including a 98-yarder in Week 10 in Indianapolis, the second-longest in team history.

“In the punt return game, we had the early season penalty issue, which I think we’ve cleaned up, which took away a lot of great yardage and a touchdown,” Fassel said. “So, going into next year, if we can just really focus on that again and keep all the return yardage for (WR/PR) Tavon (Austin) I think we’ve got some special guys back there.”

The Rams also received a stout performance from Zuerlein in 2013, as the second-year kicker’s field-goal conversion rate of 92.9 percent tied Jeff Wilkins’ 2003 season for the second-best in St. Louis Rams history. In addition to his field-goal accuracy, Zuerlein proved to be a valuable weapon in the field position battle, earning touchbacks on 67.5 percent of his kickoffs, good for sixth-best in the NFL.

The Rams’ best work on special teams, however, came from the right foot of Hekker, who set an NFL record with a net yardage of 44.2 yards per punt. Hekker’s efforts led to his selection to the Pro Bowl, the first Rams punter to be named to the NFL’s All-Star competition since Dale Hatcher in 1985. Hekker and his coverage team saved their best work for the end of the year. In a culmination of the strides made by the Rams’ young special teams units, opposing teams combined for -2 yards on punt returns over the season’s final three weeks.

“The things that took place in our special teams room this year and on the practice field and in games was outstanding,” Head Coach Jeff Fisher said. “For us to be able to set that record (net punting average in a single season) – it was really a great effort on behalf of (Special Teams Coordinator) Coach (John) Fassel and (Special Teams Assistant Coach Paul F.) Boudreau and that group. I was really impressed.