FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — For all the difficulties the Los Angeles Rams have had over the past two months , punting the ball hasn’t been one of them.
And that’s exactly one of the things that concerns Patriots coach Bill Belichick as they prepare to host the struggling NFC West team on Sunday.
Los Angeles (4-7) will arrive in New England having lost six of its last seven games, including a 49-21 drubbing at New Orleans last week. But two of its four wins have come in low scoring punt fests: a 9-3 win over Seattle back in September, and a 9-6 victory on the road against the Jets earlier this month.
The common denominator in both wins was the “tremendous weapon” Belichick says they have in punter Johnny Hekker.
In his fifth season out of Oregon State, Hekker has been one of the NFL’s most accurate punters since signing with the Rams in 2012. The 26-year-old has not only has arguably the league’s best leg when it comes to yardage, but also marksman-like precision on directional punts, plus an accurate arm when throwing the ball on fakes.
“Yeah, he’s dangerous,” Belichick said. “I mean, he’s like a quarterback. He can throw, he can run. You’ve got to defend him like you’d defend one of those guys.”
This season, Hekker has put a NFL-best 35 punts inside the 20-yard line, with just one touchback. In addition, Hekker has limited teams to a 4.5 yards average per return, while ranking second in the league with a 44.9 net yards per punt average.
In Los Angeles’ win over Seattle, Hekker’s six punts limited the Seahawks to an average starting position on their own 17.
Then in the win over the Jets, he became the first NFL punter since 1984 to record a punt of 75 of yards or more in back-to-back weeks since 1984 when he had a career-best 78-yard boot. His 51.7 yards per punt average in that game limited New York to an average starting position on its own 18.
“This guy is as good a player as I’ve ever seen at that position,” said Belichick, who placed Hekker among his list of great NFL punters, which includes Ray Guy, Thomas Morstead, Dave Jennings and Sean Landeta.
Patriots punter Ryan Allen beat Hekker out for the starting job in 2008 at Oregon State. Allen eventually transferred to Louisiana State and went on to win the Ray Guy Award, given to the best collegiate punter, in 2011 and 2012.
“At the end of the day, he’s an athlete,” Allen said of Hekker. “You kind of have to respect multiple aspects of his athleticism.”
If the Rams have any chance to stun the Patriots, it will likely come via Hekker’s ability to flip the field. The Patriots have been held to single-digits only once this season, in their 16-0 loss to Buffalo . In that game, the Bills held New England to an average starting position of their own 23.
Still, if Allen is on the field a lot on Sunday, it will mean the Patriots are doing something right.
“We’ve just got to make sure we get the ball, that’s all,” Belichick said with a chuckle. “I hope (Hekker) gets a good workout; yeah.”