NFL

NFL kickers are off to their best start ever

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DENVER (AP)

(Eds: Adds background, quotes. With AP Photos.)By ARNIE STAPLETONAP Pro Football Writer

The men in stripes have drawn so much attention this season that some interesting developments on the football field have gone largely unnoticed, like a big spike in field goal accuracy.

NFL teams combined for a record 2,287 points in the first three weeks of the season thanks to a record 248 touchdowns.

Kickers have done their part in this proliferation of points, converting 182 field goal attempts and missing just 15 for a 92.4 percent clip - the best three-week start ever.

The three-week mark tends to be a precursor for the entire season, with the final accuracy rate dipping two or three percentage points as the weather gets worse and the pressure rises.

That means the record set in 2008 of 84.5 percent could be obliterated this season.

The league-wide field goal percentage last season was 82.9 percent, second-highest all-time. Through three weeks last season, the number was 85.8 percent, according to STATS LLC.

If this year's figure drops a similar 2.9 percentage points, it would end up at 89.5 percent, an enormous jump, statistically speaking.

Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater, the most accurate kicker in league history from 50 yards and out, said he thinks this year's spike is the culmination of several factors ranging from better athletes to improved coaching and superior training.

''Guys are just getting better and better,'' Prater said. ''You get guys who are veterans in there and they learn from their mistakes and don't want to repeat them.''

Yet, it's not just the icy veined veterans who are nailing their kicks.

Kickers coming out of college are having immediate success, too, much like the better-prepared rookie quarterbacks who no longer have to bide their time as backups.

Heading into this weekend's slate beginning with Thursday night's Cleveland-Baltimore game, the Ravens' Justin Tucker, St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein and Minnesota's Blair Walsh were a combined 22-for-22 with each rookie having kicked at least a 55-yarder.

Tucker and Walsh have game-winners already. Tucker's beat New England 31-30 last weekend as time expired and Walsh's came in overtime against Jacksonville after he kicked a 55-yarder as time expired in regulation.

''There's more camps for kids coming up the ranks now,'' Prater said. ''You can get a good head start on it.''

During their high school years, both Walsh and Tucker attended kicking camps in California run by Chris Sailer, who kicked for UCLA in the 1990s.

Kickers are also in the weight room more, employ specialized training and superior techniques, kick on more favorable surfaces, generally are better coached and are used more effectively and efficiently on game day.

They benefit from better athleticism than their predecessors, come almost exclusively from soccer backgrounds, are aided by an increased emphasis on special teams and rule changes, and even by playing some of their games indoors.

It all adds up to greater accuracy.

''Coaches are starting to let more opportunities happen, which will increase the percentage,'' Walsh said. ''I just think guys are really starting to perfect what they do, and you're seeing a lot more great kickers today than you probably did in the past. You'd have a handful of great kickers and the rest would be pretty good, but not elite, but I think there's a ton of elite kickers in the NFL right now.''

The success rate has risen steadily from all distances, short and long, during the Super Bowl era. In 1967, for instance, barely 51 percent of all field goal attempts were good. Now, nine in 10 are splitting the uprights, which were moved to the back of the end zone in 1974.

Back then, kickers were often converted linemen who happened to have strong legs. Now, every kicker in the NFL played soccer as a kid and all employ the soccer-style kick that has improved place-kickers' accuracy over the decades.

Hall of Fame kicker Lou ''The Toe'' Groza made 54.9 percent of his field goal attempts, a percentage that would get him run off the roster today, not enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

Kickers aren't just more accurate, but with such parity in the league, they're more important than ever.

Through Week 3, 28 games were decided by one score, tied with 1988 for the most such games through the first three weeks. Last weekend, seven games were decided in the final minute of regulation or overtime, something that's happened just once before, in 1995. Five of those came down to a field goal.

Among the seven game-winning field goals so far was Tucker's 27-yarder as time expired that gave the Ravens the victory over the New England Patriots last weekend in a rematch of the AFC championship game. In that title game, Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds. In the encore, Tucker - who took the job away from Cundiff in training camp - drove his kick just inside the right upright.

''Bottom line is it went in,'' Tucker said. ''That's all I care about. It went in.''

Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn't so sure and he was fined $50,000 this week for grabbing a replacement official's arm after the game as he tried to see if the call was reviewable. It wasn't.

Tucker, who beat out Cundiff with a perfect preseason, attributes his success to lessons he received from head coach John Harbaugh, special teams coach Jerry Rosburg and kicking consultant Randy Brown.

''I feel like I'm kicking the best I ever kicked,'' Tucker said. ''Took a little work, took a couple of days, and now I feel like I'm striking the ball as confidently as I ever have.''

He's not the only one who feels that way.

Prater's three field goals against Houston last week moved him past Jason Elam as the most accurate kicker in team history at 81 percent, and his 53-yarder made him 13 for 17 from 50 yards and out for a 76.5 percent clip, the best in league history with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Ryan Succop's club-record sixth field goal gave Kansas City a 27-24 win in overtime at New Orleans last weekend. He was a perfect 6 for 6 on kicks ranging from 25 to 45 yards.

Zuerlein, a sixth-round pick out of tiny Missouri Western, is 8 for 8 on field goals, including a 56-yarder last week, one yard shy of the Rams franchise record.

What impresses his coaches is his steely resolve that belies his inexperience.

''I guess I'm just confident in my abilities,'' Zuerlein said. ''I expect to make the kick, so I don't get nervous really.''

Rams special teams coach John Fassel said he's never worked with a kicker this talented so early in his career: ''You see him in the mall, he looks like any other 24-year-old walking around,'' Fassel said. ''But his leg speed is incredible.''

Zuerlein said years spent playing soccer probably account for his explosive leg power, not anything he does in the weight room.

''I can't squat a house or anything like that,'' Zuerlein said. ''It's probably about the same amount of weight just an average person might lift.''

So far this season, there's been nothing ordinary about NFL kickers.

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Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers R.B. Fallstrom and David Ginsburg contributed to this story.

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Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Tagged: Broncos, Rams, Vikings, Redskins, Ravens, Billy Cundiff, Matt Prater, Blair Walsh, Greg Zuerlein, Justin Tucker

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