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Bill Belichick praises 'explosive' Rams specialists

If America learned one thing from the NFC Championship Game (that didn't have to do with officiating), it's that the Rams' punt team cannot be trusted.

It's fourth down in the Rams' territory? Don't bank on a punt. Johnny Hekker's fake punt pass to Sam Shields proved this to be true.

There's also the kicker who drilled a 57-yard field goal to send the Rams to the Super Bowl. Greg Zuerlein went 4-for-4 on the day, in a high-pressure environment. No biggie.

Bill Belichick took it a step further, letting the public know Thursday he will not be caught off guard by the Rams' special teams, which packs more of a punch than your typical third phase of football.

"Every kicking play is an explosive play potentially for the Rams," Belichick said. "Kickers have big legs, obviously [Greg] Zuerlein's field goal difference in the championship game. [Johnny] Hekker is a tremendous player, great athlete. He's a weapon.

"They block kicks, they return kicks. They have a fast coverage team. They can change field position. Offensively there's a lot of backup situations based on their kicking game -- put you on a long field."

Hekker's punting is even better than his passing. The boot from Redmond, Washington, dropped 21 of his 43 punts inside the 20, averaging 46.3 yards per punt in 2018. Thanks to the Rams' success, his 43 punts are a career low for a season.

Zuerlein, accurately nicknamed "Legatron" (or "Automatic G," according to Marcus Peters) hit the convincing 57-yarder Sunday to lead his highlight reel and has been mostly reliable in 2018. Zuerlein made 27 of 31 regular season attempts -- but had a crucial miss against New Orleans in their regular-season meeting -- and 35 of 36 point-after attempts. In the postseason he's been even better, making 7 of 8 attempts and 5 of 5 PATs. His winding kick near the end of regulation pushed the NFC title game to an improbable overtime. We know how his next kick fared.

When combined, Belichick is correct: Los Angeles' foot-reliant specialists are, well, weapons.

And then, there's return man JoJo Natson. The former Akron Zip has four 20-plus-yard punt returns in 2018, his first season with the Rams, and one return of more than 40 yards. He's averaging 10.8 yards per punt return, has posted three 20-plus-yard kick returns and has tallied just 10 fair catches, making him a factor in the field-position game.

There is a concern about his fumbling, though, as the small-bodied returner carries the ball somewhat loosely when attempting to evade tacklers. He's fumbled twice in 2018, including an ill-timed fumble that sealed Philadelphia's win over Los Angeles in Week 15.

He boasts speed and elusiveness that every team desires, though, and with the Rams already owning an offense that can move down the field quickly, Zuerlein, Hekker and Natson make for a formidable special teams unit. Belichick knows it stands to be a significant factor on the game's biggest stage.

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