Each week in the NFL, offenses and defense around the league concoct intricate game plans with extremely specific details on how they’re going to attack an opponent.
For Rams punter Johnny Hekker and his coverage unit, things are quite a bit more simplified, at least in a general sense.
“The M.O. is to limit all returns, if at all possible eliminating them completely from the face of the Earth,” Hekker said.
OK, so the method to wiping punt returns off the planet is a bit more complicated than just saying that but it’s something the Rams have emphasized and executed on a pretty regular basis this season.
Devin Hester, Patrick Peterson (x2), Leon Washington, Leodis McKelvin, Julian Edelman, Randall Cobb, Ted Ginn Jr. (x2) and Brandon Banks.
Those are just some of the names of the league’s most dynamic punt returners that have littered the Rams schedule this year with the dangerous ability to score a touchdown any time they touch the ball.
The mere presence of any of those players dropped back to return a punt is enough to have special teams coaches and punters awake at night.
But for the Rams and Hekker, though there have been some bumps along the way, every challenge for their coverage unit has been met.
“Well, considering the quality of returners that we’ve faced, it seems that week after week after week, I’d say they’ve done an outstanding job,” Fisher said. “When you talk about the different returners from Peterson in Arizona to McKelvin last week, I mean, week after week we’re putting a lot of pressure on Johnny to put the ball on the boundary to angle kick, which is difficult. And it seems like with consistency the guys are getting down and making the plays.”
The basic statistics for Hekker and the punt team probably won’t wow anyone as they sit 21st in the league in punt coverage but when you take into account the volume of punts for Hekker and the caliber of returners the Rams seem to face each and every week, the group’s performance has been even better.
Take last week, for example. Playing Buffalo’s top-ranked punt return unit, the Rams kept McKelvin and Brad Smith in check. In close games where one special teams play can make all the difference, those stops and the ability of Hekker to kick toward the sideline are imperative.
“A ball in the middle of the field is dangerous,” Hekker said. “That’s one thing I have learned at this level is if you let those guys catch the ball with some steam behind them, they are going to make you pay. We just make sure we wrap up and do our best to not let anyone score on us.”
Hekker’s directional kicking has been a work in progress since he arrived as an undrafted rookie out of Oregon State this year though he did quite a bit of directional punting for the Beavers.
A casual observer might think kicking the ball out of bounds is a simple exercise but it’s actually much more complicated.
On each punt angled toward the sideline, Hekker lines up offset from long snapper
Then, when Hekker receives the snap, he has to walk a bit diagonally to reach his drop point for the punt which is supposed to be about 10 yards behind the snapper.
With so many moving parts, a misstep can lead to a mistake such as the 14-yard punt he hit in overtime two weeks ago against San Francisco or, worse yet, a ball between the hashes that can be returned a long way.
“There are kind of three scenarios every time I am out there punting,” Hekker said. “I just do my best to focus on the one and that’s the perfect punt, punting it out of bounds where I need to get it.”
The job Hekker has done on those angled punts (plus a solid hang time) is most evident in the fact that he’s punted 66 times (seventh most in the league) and only 35 of those punts have been returned.
In other words, nearly half of Hekker’s punts are either being fair caught, dropping out of bounds or landing and rolling. The goal on each punt is to get it out of bounds at least 40 to 45 yards down the sideline (though that can be adjusted depending on where the punt originates.
If the punt is going to stay in bounds, the Rams would like it to be as close to the sideline as possible because it can essentially serve as a 12th defender.
“The sideline is our friend,” Hekker said. “We just don’t want to let those dangerous guys get out into the field where they can make people miss.”
Although the 10.2 yards per return the Rams allow sits 21st in the league, that yardage has been limited to a number of returns right in that range rather than one long return skewing the numbers.
Hekker and Co. have not allowed a punt return longer than 26 yards on the season and have only allowed four returns to go for 20 or more yards. Hekker also hasn’t cost the Rams much in the way of yards by not kicking the ball out of the end zone when punting from in close.
Out of his 66 punts, Hekker has just three touchbacks on the year, making him more effective at changing field position.
“Well field position, obviously, it’s important,” Fisher said. “You flip the field, Johnny’s (Hekker) done it a number of times, you flip the field, you get a three-and-out defensively, you’re starting to win field position battles and punting is central to that.”
GIBSON BIDES TIME: In games against Arizona and San Francisco, Rams receiver
Then, last week in Buffalo, when the Rams needed someone, anyone to step up and provide a spark for the offense, particularly in the aerial attack, on came Gibson.
Gibson posted six catches on nine targets on his way to his first 100-yard game and added the game-winning touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter.
That Gibson was nowhere to be found then emerged from the shadows at the most important time is simply indicative of how the Rams offense is designed right now.
“Yes it is,” Fisher said. “It really depends on coverage and selection, progression, a lot of different things. The good part about this group it’s a very unselfish group. When one guy makes a catch everybody else is excited because it’s the group that’s on the other end of the throw rather than just the person.”
For the season, Gibson has again been a steady if unspectacular performer, ranking second in receptions (40), third in receiving yards (537) and first in touchdowns (five). If nothing else, though, Gibson continues to prove reliable and dependable.
“He’s been very productive for us, made some key catches in some key situations, been very consistent,” Fisher said. “He’s in the right place at the right time. Sam trusts him. He’s very reliable.”
INJURY REPORT: The Rams made some progress on the injury report Thursday though not with every player who was listed Wednesday.
Even better news was the sight of safety
Notable for the Vikings was the downgrade of running back Adrian Peterson from limited participation to sitting out Thursday’s practice. He has an abdomen injury. Cornerback Antoine Winfield (knee) again did not participate.