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Rams’ Johnny Hekker is getting his kicks despite not punting much

 Johnny Hekker holds for Rams placekicker Samuel Sloman against Buffalo in Week 3.
If Johnny Hekker hadn’t held for kicker Samuel Sloman against Buffalo on Sunday, the punter would not have left the Rams’ bench.
(Adrian Kraus / Associated Press)

In eight-plus NFL seasons with the Rams, Johnny Hekker has trotted onto the field and punted 613 times during the regular season and 19 times in the playoffs.

He booms kicks, one traveling as far as 78 yards. He’s an expert at placing others, many regularly downed inside the 20-yard line, putting opposing offenses in a bind.

Hekker has punted in Pro Bowls and the Super Bowl. When his career ends, he could be headed to the Hall of Fame.

But Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, Hekker experienced something that had never happened in 130 previous regular-season games and four postseason games — Johnny Hekker did not attempt a punt.

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“It was definitely one where my contributions were limited to holding and being a sideline cheerleader,” Hekker said in a phone interview.

Hekker’s role might be limited again Sunday when the Rams (2-1) play the winless New York Giants (0-3) at SoFi Stadium. The Rams’ offense under coach Sean McVay is harkening to the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when Hekker had his lightest workloads as a pro.

Hekker remains prepared regardless.

Sam Farmer makes his picks and predictions for the remaining slate of games in Week 4 of the 2020 NFL season.

“You’re always ready — every third down, when we’re in a situation where we’re not going to kick a field goal or when we’re in that gray area,” he said. “And if your number is never called, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Hekker, 30, signed with the Rams as free agent in 2012 after playing in college at Oregon State. Through his first five NFL seasons, he averaged about 87 punts per season.

With the arrival of McVay and his high-powered offense, that number dropped to 65 in 2017. It fell to 43 in 2018, when the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.

Along the way, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Hekker also developed into a potent passing threat. The former high school quarterback has completed 13 of 22 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown.

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Rams punter Johnny Hekker (6) greets teammate offensive guard Austin Corbett in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rams punter Johnny Hekker has not gotten on the playing field much so far this season.
(Corey Perrine / Associated Press)

Giants coach Joe Judge faced Hekker multiple times — including in the Super Bowl — while serving as special teams coordinator for the Patriots.

“He makes teams adjust their game plans,” Judge said. “He’s always a threat with a pass.

“As we explained to our team, you just got to picture this guy as really a quarterback who can punt, he’s not a punter who throws the ball. ... He’s really changed the punting position in a lot of ways.”

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Hekker was flattered by Judge’s assessment but said his production was a reflection of teammates making plays around him and coaches who believed enough to “roll the dice” and try different plays.

“You can throw the ball as far as you want,” he said, “but if no one calls a play for you to do it, you don’t really get to show that.”

After last season, longtime Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel left to join the Dallas Cowboys staff. McVay replaced him with John Bonamego, who had been a special teams coach for six NFL teams. Bonamego allowed Hekker and long-snapper Jake McQuaide latitude in their preparation for the season and games.

“He’s done a great job of kind of giving us some player ownership of what we’re doing, which has been good,” said Hekker, who has a salary-cap number of $4.7 million this season, according to overthecap.com.

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The NFL says the Pittsburgh-Tennessee game that was postponed from Sunday as a result of the Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak will be played Oct. 25.

Because explosive movements such as a place-kicking and punting can take a physical toll if not correctly monitored, Bonamego said that with young players coaches sometimes must “step in and protect them from themselves” to avoid injuries.

“But with veteran players, guys like this, they’re just great pros,” Bonamego said in a phone interview. “They know what works for them.”

This season, Hekker has punted five times. Only one was returned. Three landed inside the 20. McVay said he realized during the 35-32 loss to the Bills that Hekker had not punted.

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“I was aware of that given the fact that if we have to punt usually I’m pissed,” McVay told reporters Friday.

McVay regretted not using Hekker in the first quarter, when he had rookie Samuel Sloman attempt a 53-yard field goal. Sloman missed, and the Bills got the ball at their 43-yard line and went on to score a touchdown.

“I probably should have used the best punter in the world to our advantage and had him pin them deep in their territory instead of giving them a short field,” McVay said.

As the season progresses, Hekker said he would be ready for whatever role is required. With no fans in stadiums, he has tried to lift teammates and “just hype guys up after they make plays,” he said.

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A years-long NFL Films project built a massive database of crowd sounds from every stadium, not knowing that audio library would be so valuable in an age of empty venues and artificial noise.

“I try and leave the game losing my voice,” he said. “Just making noise for my teammates and providing energy when I can.”

But he will be ready if called upon.

“It really just puts that much heightened sense of awareness of when I do get to punt, I just need to go in there and produce for the team because those are moments when we need them,” he said. “But really, I’m really happy sitting on the sideline watching our offense get first downs and score touchdowns.”

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Etc.

Running back Cam Akers (ribs) worked on the side with a trainer but he is out for Sunday’s game. Safety Jordan Fuller (shoulder) was limited and listed as questionable. Defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day (ankle) and wide receiver Josh Reynolds (ankle) were full participants in practice. ... Giants defensive back Jabrill Peppers (ankle) was ruled out for Sunday’s game. Defensive back Julian Love (knee/ankle) was limited and is listed as questionable.


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