Rookie kickers are performing in the clutch as never before

In late August, the Baltimore Ravens released Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff in favor of rookie kicker Justin Tucker. A missed field goal in the AFC championship game was probably a factor, but that story was overplayed -- in truth, Tucker won the job on merit alone.

He made all five tries he attempted in the preseason, and hit two from longer than 50 yards. The undrafted rookie from Texas was able to take that success into the regular season in a big way -- Tucker has attempted nine field goals through four games and missed only one. His best day came in a Week 2 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, when he hit on field goals of 56, 51, and 48 yards.

"The thing I like about [him] is he's workmanlike," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh recently said of Tucker. "He really pays attention to detail and technique."

Tucker's not the only rookie slamming long field goals at a revolutionary rate -- in fact, he might not even be the best.

That title may have gone to Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein, first-year placekicker for the St. Louis Rams. In Sunday's 19-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks, the sixth-round pick from Missouri Western booted successful tries of 24, 48, 58, and 60 yards. Even in the indoor confines of the Edwards Jones Dome, this was impressive, as is Zuerlein's line for 2012: He is a perfect 12-for-12 on the season.

The Rams scored their only touchdown of the day on a fake field goal, when holder Johnny Hekker threw a two-yard touchdown pass to receiver Danny Amendola, so it's pretty clear that Zuerlein is the Rams' most potent offensive weapon.

"Right now, our kicker is the MVP of the season," Rams running back Steven Jackson said after the game. "Pretty much, all we've got to do is get across the 50-yard line and we're in his range."

Then, there's the story of Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh, who has made all seven of his attempts, and kicked one over 50 yards for the second straight week as the Vikings beat the Lions, 20-13. Walsh connected on kicks of 27 and 49 yards.

"He's real confident in his abilities," Lions receiver Kris Durham said this week of Walsh, who was Durham's teammate at Georgia. "He doesn't really pay attention to outside influences and that kind of stuff. If you try to ice him, he's still going to be the same guy. He's going to take the same steps and be ready to kick it."

In his NFL regular-season debut, Walsh kicked a 55-yarder as time expired to send the Vikings' game with the Jacksonville Jaguars into overtime, and his 38-yarder on the fifth period gave Minnesota a 26-23 victory. For that, Walsh was named NFL Special Teams Player of the Week.

Walsh will probably lose that honor to Zuerlein this week, or perhaps one of his own teammates -- in the Lions game, receiver Percy Harvin had a105-yard kick return, and Marcus Sherels  added a 77-yard punt return touchdown for good measure.

One thing's for sure -- when you have trouble scoring offensive touchdowns, you want the right kicker to even the odds. And in ways we've never quite seen before, the NFL is full of kids getting the job done.