Hekker Getting His Kicks

Posted Oct 5, 2012

Thursday night’s win against Arizona was supposed to serve as the unveiling of one dynamic rookie right leg to a national audience. Fans interested in that kind of thing were actually served a double helping.

Through four games, rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein has earned the bulk of the headlines with his perfect start and he did nothing to tarnish that with a 53-yard field goal against the Cardinals.

But it wasn’t Zuerlein that stole the show on Thursday night in terms of the Rams specialists. It was his fellow rookie and roommate, punter Johnny Hekker, that put together the performance that caught the attention from broadcasters, writers, coaches and teammates.

Even flashy wideout/NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin took note of Hekker’s powerful right leg and how he helped neutralize lethal Arizona returner Patrick Peterson.

“John was very efficient,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “Five out of his seven punts were exactly where he needed to put them against a very, very good returner. You don’t realize how difficult it is for a punter to turn and angle and put the ball into the boundary like that in the face of a rush. I thought he did a very, very good job.”

Indeed, Hekker’s performance wasn’t quite perfect but it certainly was good enough to help keep Peterson from making the type of back breaking plays he made against the Rams in 2011.

Hekker punted seven times for a total of 398 yards, an average of 56.9 yards with a long of 68 and three punts inside Arizona’s 20. More important, Hekker was able to successfully angle his kicks out of bounds and toward the sideline. Combined with solid coverage work, his net average for the night was a strong 46 yards per attempt.

“Punting is a lot more difficult than people give you credit for,” Hekker said. “You are moving yourself, hitting a moving object with your leg moving and everything, trying to aim it toward the sideline. The ball flight completely depends on the contact with the ball. So you just try to have good contact, have a good line and everything and the snap can off to the side and take off your line sometimes. I was just able to be comfortable back there, have good steps and put a couple of them out of bounds.”

Slowing Peterson has become one of the most difficult propositions in football since Arizona drafted him last year. He had a “walk off” 99-yard return for an overtime win against the Rams in Arizona last year and returned another for a touchdown when the teams re-convened in St. Louis.

When facing a returner like Peterson, the theory of kicking away and out of bounds is much simpler than the execution. Hekker seemed to find the magic formula Thursday night, for the most part as he launched two completely out of bounds with distances of 68 and 57 yards.

Only two of Hekker’s punts were inside the hashes. More often than not, punters working on directional kicks have to sacrifice distance for the angle. But Hekker seems to have found a pretty comfortable groove in maximizing both.

“I don’t know, just walk a good line, get a good mental image of where I want to kick it, let the ball get a little deeper,” Hekker said. “I had a couple good ones that were deep and out of bounds. I’m working on getting a good balance between distance and direction and everything. Distance, direction and hang time are the three main ingredients. You want to get two out of three. I am working on trying to get good direction on every punt and try to limit those returns because the return guys in the NFL are all very dangerous.”

With a murderers row of returners now in the past in Chicago’s Devin Hester, Seattle’s Leon Washington and Peterson, Hekker’s performance has been even more impressive.

Five games into his career, Hekker is seventh in the league in gross punting (49.5 yards per attempt), tied for 11th in punts inside the 20 (seven) and 13th in net yards (41.2 per attempt).

By his own account, Hekker said facing the prospect of dealing with Peterson isn’t a fun chore but he was thrilled with how his team helped out.

“It’s scary punting to a guy like that,” Hekker said. “The guy is electric with the ball in his hands; you saw glimpses of that but our guys did a great job of covering the punts that were in the field of play that he was able to run with. We did a great job all night of containing him and not letting him take one to the house.”

JACKSON’S FUTURE 2: Last night, running back Steven Jackson addressed the reports that he has a re-worked contract which voids out the final year of his deal in 2013.

In answering questions about it, Jackson said that he wanted to remain a Ram for the rest of his career, allowing him the opportunity to finish his career where it started.

There is a lot that has to play out before Jackson’s future in St. Louis is officially determined but it’s clear right now that both sides would prefer that Jackson goes nowhere.

“We want to have Jack back,” Fisher said. “We want him to be part of our future. It’s interesting how this came out yesterday when this is something that we did back in training camp. But it hasn’t affected anything. Jack is one of the major faces of this franchise. We’d like to give him the opportunity to finish his career here.”

STUFFING THE RUN: Perhaps lost in the shuffle of the dominant pass rush performance Thursday night was a stout run defense that refused to allow Arizona to move the ball much if at all on the ground.

The Cardinals didn’t particularly care to run the ball much at all but that was partially a function of a lack of success. The Rams limited Arizona to 45 yards on 17 carries, a sharp contrast from week 4 when Seattle bludgeoned the Rams on the ground for 179 yards on 34 carries.

“We wanted to come into this game and do some good things against the run and we were able to do that,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “Anytime you just get better from week to week, you are on the right track.”

INJURY REPORT: While random reports continue to swirl about the shoulder/clavicle injury suffered by Rams receiver Danny Amendola, Fisher declined to offer any further details on Friday afternoon.

Some media outlets reported a separate clavicle will keep Amendola on the sidelines for about six weeks but Fisher said he didn’t find it appropriate to discuss Amendola’s status until the team returns to work after some time off this weekend.

“If Danny is going to miss a game, I’ll discuss it at a time at which I am sure that he’s going to miss a game,” Fisher said.

Other ailments such as safety Quintin Mikell’s concussion and linebacker Mario Haggan’s thigh injury will also become clearer when the Rams return to work next week. Fisher has given the players the weekend off and they will return to practice Tuesday.

“We’re off this weekend,” Fisher said. “With time off, we’ll have a few days to heal up and so we’re going to take advantage of that before I discuss anything from an injury standpoint.”