Having coached one of the NFL's top special teams units of the 2010s, first-year Giants head coach Joe Judge recognizes a talented special teams group when he sees one.
Before heading to New York, Judge spent eight years working with the Patriots' specialists (2012-19), the first four as an assistant and the remaining four as the special teams coordinator. From the 2012-16, New England blocked the second-most field goals in the league (seven), and from 2012-18, wide receiver Julian Edelman was one of the NFL's most efficient punt returners – his 11.8 career yards per punt return is second in franchise history and tied for eighth in league history. In 2019, Judge's final season, the Patriots finished ninth in the NFL in punt return (8.0-yard average) and punt (6.3) and kickoff coverage (20.9).
Looking at Rams special teams coordinator John Bonamego's group, Judge is impressed with what he sees as he prepares for Sunday's Week 4 matchup between the two teams.
"I've known John for some time now, he's been a very good personal friend to me," Judge said during a video conference with reporters Wednesday. "The thing I know about John, he plays aggressive. The saying 'free herd,' that's how he approaches it right there. His teams play aggressive, they play downhill, they're a physical bunch. They're aggressive in rushing kicks, punts and field goals."
Perhaps the biggest example of that aggressiveness is the way the Rams put themselves in position to make plays on special teams. Judge pointed to Bonamego using wide receiver Cooper Kupp as a punt returner.
"They do a very good job in the return game obviously with Cooper back there returning punts," Judge said. "They put an emphasis on getting their best players involved in the game and looking to make game-changing plays every time."
Given Johnny Hekker's reputation for doing that – and not just with his leg – it makes sense, then, that Judge spoke highly of the Rams' veteran punter.
A four-time First-Team All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl selection, Hekker has averaged 47.0 yards per punt in eight-plus seasons. However, he's also adept at faking punts – he's completed 13 of 22 passes in his career, including one that went for a touchdown during his 2012 rookie season with the Rams.
"As we explained to our team, you have to picture this guy really as a quarterback who can punt. He's not a punter who throws the ball," Judge said. "I've known Johnny for some time, a lot of respect for him and his game. Anyone who really studies the NFL, he's really changed the punting position in a lot of ways, and he's really been a weapon for this team to establish and maintain field position consistently."
While this is the first meeting between the Giants and the Rams since 2017, Judge isn't very far removed from the last time he faced Los Angeles, having coached in Super Bowl LIII.
"I think every team is very unique," Judge said, when asked by a reporter if that familiarity and L.A. having many of the same weapons helps at all in preparing for it. "This Rams team is not the same team they were last year or two years ago."
Indeed, the Rams are a different team – special teams personnel and coaches are also different from the group judge prepared for more than a year and a half ago – but between his own expertise and his familiarity with Bonamego, Judge will have an idea of what to expect on Sunday.