(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)
By JASON L. YOUNG
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Johnny Hekker is beginning to make his mark as one of five rookie punters in the NFL.
The Rams' punt team's statistics don't give much reason for pause, ranking in the bottom third in net average, percentage of punts inside the opponents' 20 yard line, fair catches forced and several other categories. But what coach Jeff Fisher likes is Hekker's ability to help the Rams overcome their anemic offense by repeatedly "flipping the field" to help the defense.
"I wouldn't say I'm good at too much, but I try to be all right at a couple of things," Hekker said Wednesday as the Rams prepared to host Minnesota on Sunday.
The best returners aren't getting far if they do catch the ball. The Rams are tied for sixth in the number of returns attempted against them and tied for 12th with an average of 10.2 yards allowed per return.
In its 15-12 victory Sunday at Buffalo, the best punt return team in the league, Hekker punted eight times. Returner Leodis McKelvin averaged 10.2 yards in four returns, 8.5 yards below his average.
"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. "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."
Learning to kick directionally - away from the returner and toward the sideline - has been the key to his success. Hekker averaged just over 41 yards per punt while at Oregon State, including 44 per attempt his senior year.
Instead of booming the ball as far as he can, Hekker has worked diligently since joining the Rams at attempting to pin the returner against the sideline or kick the ball out of bounds but still get good distance on the kick.
Long snapper Jake McQuaide appreciates the approach.
"He's doing a great job punting the ball, matching his hang time with his distance, which is a huge deal for the other guys that have to cover it," McQuaide said. "He's not just hitting line drive punts that the guy catches it he has 20, 30 yards of space and he can make us all miss. And he's doing a great job at direction. He's doing a great job of doing his job, being a pro and he's done it from Day 1 of being here."
Hekker has seen plenty of action. The offense has a 33.3 percent success rate in converting third downs, ranking 28th in the league. Though Fisher feels comfortable with Greg Zuerlein attempting field goals from as far as 55 yards under any circumstance, the Rams have called on their punter 70 times.
One of those times was a run that lost 9 yards. Three were passing attempts - all completions - including one for a touchdown in a 19-13 victory against Seattle. The other 66 times, Hekker has worked on his real job of punting.
"I just got to be consistent, punt balls with good hang time, direction and distance, try and squeeze the returner up against the sideline so he doesn't have very much room," he said. "Just doing my best to make sure, when there's a tackle to be made, that our guys are going to be in good positions because the ball's in the right spot."