The Los Angeles Rams have not had a lot of success lately. Their last winning season was in 2003 and the last time they finished a season at .500 was a decade ago in 2006. The Rams rank last in points scored and have one win over their past seven games.
So you can forgive New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when he struggles to find ways to heap platitudes on his opponent. Sure, Belichick will give all the generic compliments he grants the build-a-players and Henchman #3s that fill out the Ram roster, outside of Aaron Donald, the best defensive tackle in the NFL. The quarterback was drafted 1st overall because he’s talented; this wide receiver is big and having a good year; that running back is also big and runs fast; these linebackers have speed.
But it’s almost undeniable that Belichick considers Rams punter Johnny Hekker the best player on their roster, giving unsolicited praise to Hekker to open up his Wednesday press conference.
“So this is obviously a Ram team that we don’t know very well, so we’ve spent a lot of time here the last couple of days here trying to get familiar with their players, their schemes and so forth,” Belichick said. “I’d start with saying a very talented team. They have a lot of very good players, a lot of explosive players in all three phases of the game. Let’s start with the kicking game; I mean [Johnny] Hekker is a tremendous weapon. This guy looks like as good a player as I’ve ever seen at that position. He’s a tremendous weapon in his ability to punt the ball, punt it inside the 20, directional kick it, involved in fakes, can throw, can run, very athletic.”
The Rams punter is a weapon according to Belichick- and it’s true. Patriots fans can attest to how punter Ryan Allen has saved if not the game, at least a few points over the course of this season. Allen and Hekker were actually both recruited to the same university, but Hekker won the job forcing Allen to transfer schools.
Hekker has been named All Pro for the past three years.
“He’s dangerous,” Belichick said about Hekker. “Yeah, absolutely. 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.”
“[The Rams] lead the league in gross punting,” Belichick added, “lead the league in net punting, lead the league in inside-the-20, and lead the league in punt coverage. I mean if you’re in front in one of those categories you’re pretty good. Last year they led the league in all three. They’re right up there this year, plus he’s a threat on fakes and stuff like that. He’s pretty good.”
Despite have the worst offense in the NFL, the Rams special teams unit has done a great job in limiting the field position of opposing teams. In fact, the Rams have forced opponents to start on their own 25.8 yard line on average, the 3rd best mark in the league. This means that the punting unit is able to compensate for the lack of offense by flipping the field.
For reference, the Patriots rank 1st by forcing the opposing team to start on their own 24.3 yard line.
Belichick appreciates the effort that is required to take advantage of the possible field position.
“We’ve just got to make sure we get the ball, that’s all,” Belichick said. “Certainly another part of the problem is just catching the ball. We’ve seen multiple guys – [Hekker] kicks it so far and he makes the returner move for it and they run over there and then they mishandle it or it hits the ground and rolls for another 20 yards. It’s a tough ball to catch because you’re not just shagging fly’s out there. He’s making you run and he’s kicking it over your head. The ball handling is tough for the returners, too. [It’s] very tough.
“The Jets had a lot of trouble with it, Carolina, I’m trying to think of who else. But he’s had several punts this year where they can’t get to the ball and then it rolls 20 yards, so 50 becomes 70, or 45 becomes 65. It just changes field position in one play. You think you’re going to get the ball in good field position and you’re on your 15-yard line. We’ve got to do a good job there.”
The Patriots have done a terrible job holding on to the football on kicks, with every single returnman, whether it’s Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, or Cyrus Jones, muffing or fumbling at some point this season. Hekker won’t make it easy, but I guess practice makes perfect and the Patriots would love to see Hekker punting all game.
Belichick’s final message to Hekker? “I hope he gets a good workout.”