Sherels facing big challenge vs. Rams

The Rams are known for their defense, but last year they had the best punter and punt coverage unit combined.

Minnesota Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels and his head coach, Mike Zimmer, are in lock-step analysis. When it comes to the St. Louis Rams’ ability to cover punts, much of the success is attributable to their punter.

Johnny Hekker, signed by the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2012, was a Pro Bowl punter last year, for good reason. His 44.2-yard net average was the highest single-season net average in NFL history.

“Their punter does a great job of kicking it really high and really deep and they directional punt a lot so we’ve got to be ready for that and I think we will be,” Sherels said.

Despite Adam Thielen producing a strong preseason with a 25.4-yard average on five punt returns, Zimmer confirmed this week that Sherels will continue to be the regular-season punt returner. Against a great punter like Hekker, the Vikings are looking for experience.

“They’ve got a heck of a punter and they’ve got a lot of team speed in special teams, actually team speed all over the place,” Zimmer said. “They’ve got great team speed. Those kinds of things make it difficult.”

How impressive was the Rams’ punt coverage unit last year? While Sherels was setting a Vikings record with a 15.2-yard average on punt returns last year, the Rams were holding opponents to a 2.6-yard average, the lowest in the NFL.

“They’ve got some pretty good players. They’ve got some good gunners,” Sherels said.

But they’ve also got trickiness to them, according to Zimmer.

“I know they love to run a lot of fakes and gimmicks and gadgets. We’ll be on our toes,” he said. “… Somebody asked me earlier about the first preseason game and if it’s harder. It is because of the unknown of what’s going on in the first regular-season game. I believe that we’ve taught our players fundamentals and techniques and usually those things will carry over if we’re using the right things and we’re not trying to defend certain plays all of the time. Our fundamentals, our techniques, take over and that goes on special teams, defense and offense.”

Despite the perception that Thielen might have been pushing Sherels for the starting job, Sherels, who has been the Vikings’ main punt returner the last three years, said he was cheering for Thielen’s success during the preseason.

“Adam did a great job. It was awesome seeing him out there making plays, but right now I’m just getting ready for the regular season now like it’s my job. I’m ready to go,” Sherels said.

“We’re all teammates. We root each other on and try to get better. The more competition makes us both better. Adam did a great job. He was making plays and he’s a Minnesota guy like me, similar story. It was good see him. I was rooting for him the whole time.”

Now it will be Thielen’s turn to root for Sherels’ success against a stifling Rams’ coverage unit.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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