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Rams

Rams have been able to count on their special teams in rising to top of NFC West

Tavon Austin, Ifeanyl Moman
Rams punt returner Tavon Austin is pulled down by the facemask by Cardinals tight end Ifeanyi Momah, giving the Rams good field position for a fourth-quarter drive Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t exactly the “Welcome to L.A.” moment the Rams, or their fans, had in mind.

On the opening kickoff of the team’s first exhibition, a sellout crowd at the Coliseum and a national television audience watched as a Dallas Cowboys return man sliced through the Rams on his way to a 101-yard touchdown.

Three weeks later, the Minnesota Vikings returned a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown.

When the regular season began, there didn’t seem to be much special about the Rams’ special teams.

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But the Rams are 3-1 and in first place in the NFC West thanks in part to punter Johnny Hekker, kicker Greg Zuerlein, punt returner Tavon Austin and the unheralded members of the kickoff and punt coverage and return units.

“We’re still looking for that big play, the touchdown or the blocked kick that everyone wants to see,” special teams coach John Fassel said Tuesday.

What the Rams have lacked in spectacle, they have made up for with consistency.

Hekker, a two-time Pro Bowl player, said a perfect game for him would be “zero punts, holding for field goals and extra points, and we blow the other team out.”

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But Hekker has made the most of his league-leading 27 chances.

He has flipped the field multiple times, putting opponents in tough positions to start drives and forcing them to deal with a Rams defense that has developed a penchant for clutch plays.

Hekker has averaged 44.5 yards per punt and has put 15 inside the 20-yard-line.

It’s a collective effort, Hekker said.

 “I think some teams think there’s offense, defense and ‘OK, special teams, have your time, do whatever you need to do to keep our guys from getting hurt.’

“We have an attacking mind-set.”

Zuerlein went into training camp regarded as a potential liability after he made only 20 of 30 field-goal attempts last season.

But the fifth-year pro has made all five of his attempts this season, including three against the Seattle Seahawks, the Rams’ only points in a 9-3 victory. He also has made every extra-point attempt.

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“Yeah, you could have not brought that up and been fine,” Fassel said jokingly. “Just keep going under the radar because, you know, as soon as you bring that up, all of the sudden it’s a jinx.”

Most opponents have kicked away from Austin or forced him to make fair catches.

“Tavon is not someone that you want to punt to deep down the field, and we understand that,” Coach Jeff Fisher said. “But when we get an opportunity, we have to make it count.”

In the fourth quarter Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals gave Austin an opportunity.

His 47-yard return ended only because a Cardinals player brought him down by grabbing his facemask. The penalty yardage moved the ball to the 19-yard line and the Rams eventually scored the game-winning touchdown.

“Special teams is just going to give us our boost,” Austin said. “It’s a game-changer at any given time and that’s how we approach it.”

Like many players, veteran tight end Cory Harkey got his first playing time on special teams. He remains a mainstay of every unit.

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“A lot of guys that have been playing in the league a long time, they started most of the time on special teams,” Harkey said.

Rookies such as linebackers Josh Forrest and Cory Littleton, receiver Michael Thomas and tight end Temarrick Hemingway are rookies who have contributed on special teams.

“They’re only going to get better,” Fisher said of the units. “There’s turnover there every year, but they’re going to get better as we go along.”

Quick hits

Fisher on Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor: “He’s a healthy Russell Wilson, if that gives you an explanation or definition. He can extend the plays, he makes all the throws.” … Defensive linemen Ethan Westbrooks and Matt Longacre played extensively last weekend against Arizona. Westbrooks started in place of injured William Hayes. Longacre played more than 30 snaps, Fisher said. The depth allowed starters such as tackle Aaron Donald and end Robert Quinn to remain fresh. “When you get to the end of the game when you need a play, you’re getting the plays out of Aaron and out of Rob because they’ve been subbed for,” Fisher said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: LATimesklein


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