It has become the ultimate brawn-and-brains rivalry of the NFC West.
Over the past few seasons, the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams have played their share of close games. Eight of their past 11 meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer, including Seattle’s 16-10 road win in October.
Both teams are not only known for their physical style of defense, but also their igniting special-teams game changers. And in a close game, that can be the difference in victory or defeat on Sunday when the Seahawks host the Rams.
Cornerback DeShawn Shead came to Seattle the same season Hekker was signed by the Rams —2012. As a special-teams captain, he has experienced the highs and lows against a good Rams’ special teams operation.
“We feel we are one of the best special teams out there, so when we prepare against them, it is a great matchup,” Shead said. “It is a dogfight. That is what we prepare for. That is what we expect.”
As good as the Seahawks have been on special teams, the Rams have been even better this season. Consider:
▪ Kicker Greg Zuerlein leads the league with 36 made field goals –he’s missed just two attempts all season – and 148 total points.
▪ Punter Johnny Hekker is second in the NFL in net punting (45.1) — after leading the league in 2016 with a 46.0-yard net average.
▪ Returner Pharoh Cooper is tops in kickoff return average (28.1 ypg) and fourth in punt return average (11.9).
▪ The Rams give up just 5.0 yards per punt return, which ranks sixth in the NFL. They are 14th defending kickoff returns (20.9).
▪ And they’ve blocked two punts (Jacksonville, Philadelphia) that have been returned for touchdowns, and also a field goal and PAT kick against Arizona.
“It’s just a well-oiled group, and they really challenge us,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
The one player who seems to be front and center for the Rams is Hekker, a former Bothell High School quarterback.
During his rookie season in 2012, Hekker threw his only touchdown pass off a fake field goal in the Rams’ 19-13 win over Seattle.
And who could forget Hekker’s pass to Benny Cunningham off a fake punt from deep in Rams’ territory that secured his team’s 28-26 victory over the Seahawks in 2014?
“Over the years, he’s done some incredible things, but heartbreaking things (to) us,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said.
“Hopefully he doesn’t do any tricks this time.”
If he does, hopefully the Seahawks will be ready for them, like in last year’s 24-3 Seattle win in which Hekker’s fake-punt pass was foiled. In that same game, Seattle’s Jon Ryan scrambled 33 yards off a fake punt for a first down.
“It’s just paying attention to details,” said Seahawks cornerback Neiko Thorpe said, who is also the team’s top gunner on punt and kickoff coverage units. “We don’t want them to pull a fast one on us.
“Something is always in the air on special teams.”
Hekker is more than just a fake-punt artist. He is on the fast track to becoming one of the best punters in NFL history.
The undrafted free agent out of Oregon State put together arguably the best statistical season ever in 2016 — an NFL-record 46.0-yard net average, with 51 of his league-high 98 punts pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line.
Hekker punts with power, precision and flashes a wide array of kicks. In November, a New York Times article begged the question – should Hekker be in the NFL most valuable player discussion?
Ryan called Hekker a “once-in-a-generational punter who can change the game” on his own.
“He is on that path (to the Hall of Fame), in my opinion,” Ryan said. “I have thought that since his second year. Not only did he get to that elite level really quick, he’s gotten better every year, which is impressive.”