Rule change boosts strat­egy on kick­offs re­turns

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Teresa M. Walker

Each time Marc Mar­i­ani heads out to catch a kick­off, he hud­dles first with the Ten­nessee spe­cial teams coach for a quick strat­egy ses­sion.

Once he reaches the end zone and the ball’s in the air, the men­tal cal­cu­la­tions be­gin.

Where will the ball come down?

Short of the goal line or be­hind? Catch it and run? Catch and kneel? Or just let it roll out of the end zone for a touch­back?

All in the sec­onds that it takes for the ball to fly off the kicker’s foot to the re­turner.

“It makes you sec­ond guess tak­ing it out of the end zone now, and I think that’s what the NFL wanted ,” said Mar­i­ani, a 2010 Pro Bowler as a re­turn spe­cial­ist.

The NFL is half­way through its one-sea­son ex­per­i­ment with a rule plac­ing the ball at the 25yard line in­stead of the 20 on touch­backs.

The league wants to see how that im­pacts kick­off re­turns while hop­ing to keep play­ers safer by re­duc­ing run­backs.

Stud­ies have shown play­ers

are at greater risk of in­jury on a play send­ing teams run­ning at each other, cre­at­ing rel­a­tively high-speed col­li­sions.

Through nine weeks, touch­backs are up to 60.9 per­cent on kick­offs, ac­cord­ing to Spor­tradar. That’s a jump from 58.8 per­cent a year ago and is the high­est rate at this point in any sea­son over the past 11 years.

Teams also are av­er­ag­ing just 20.5 yards per re­turn, the low­est av­er­age since the start of the 2006 sea­son.

Ti­tans spe­cial teams coach Steve Hoff­man said the rule is hav­ing the ef­fect spe­cial teams coaches ex­pected, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to reach the 25 re­turn­ing a kick.

Teams with fast play­ers who rec­og­nize an op­po­nent’s cov­er­age scheme still can at­tack, though the de­ci­sion on when to risk re­turn­ing a kick of­ten de­pends on the score and time left on the clock.

“It’s hard to get it to the 25,” Hoff­man said. “You ask most of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tors, they’re go­ing to call plays a lot dif­fer­ent at their own 15 than their own 27. They don’t want to take neg­a­tive plays.

“They don’t want to take a sack, so what ev­ery­body’s try­ing to do, they’re just try­ing to pin it.”

Through the first eight weeks, only two kicks had been re­turned for touch­downs — both by the Philadel­phia Ea­gles.

Then within an hour of each other, Kenyan Drake re­turned a late kick 96 yards for a TD , help­ing Mi­ami beat the Jets 27-23. And Colts run­ning back Jor­dan Tod­man took the open­ing kick­off 99 yards for a touch­down, set­ting the tone for a big win at Lam­beau Field on a play Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy called a big swing.

“You can’t have it,” McCarthy said. “That’s cov­er­age unit 101.”

Kick­off re­turns re­main thrilling plays, and those pushed the NFL to four TDs mid­way through

the sea­son, match­ing the four such TDs at the same point each of the pre­vi­ous two sea­sons.

The league hasn’t had dou­ble-digit touch­downs off kick­off run­backs through nine weeks since 2010 — the year be­fore the NFL moved kick­offs from the 30-yard line to the 35.

Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son of Min­nesota had 10 re­turns of 50 yards or longer dur­ing his first three sea­sons with the Vik­ings. This sea­son, he sur­prised Ten­nessee with a 61-yard re­turn com­ing out of half­time in the sea­son opener, but has had noth­ing longer than 37 yards since.

Pat­ter­son used to have the green light even backed up in his end zone, with the Vik­ings con­fi­dent Pat­ter­son he could reach at least their 24.

Now get­ting to the 24 means Pat­ter­son might as well have taken a knee in the end zone, and Vik­ings spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor Mike Priefer said the rule has af­fected how they think.

“I think it’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing go­ing for­ward with what the league does with it as long as we keep the play in the game,” Priefer said. “It’s an ex­cit­ing play. It does make a dif­fer­ence on field po­si­tion­ing. The way we teach it here is to teach our tech­niques to keep guys safe, keep the head out of the game, and I know a lot of coaches are do­ing that now.

“I don’t think there’s as many in­juries as there has been. So, we’re go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

The NFL still has half a sea­son left be­fore de­cid­ing whether to make the rule per­ma­nent.

With the weather turn­ing cooler, es­pe­cially for north­ern teams, Dar­ren Rizzi, Mi­ami’s as­sis­tant head coach/spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor, ex­pects more teams to opt for the high, shorter kick­off that has been used mostly by those with both good kick­ers and cov­er­age units.

“So, there have been some un­seen things I think that they’ve been pretty in­ter­est­ing, so I think that it’ll con­tinue to trend down­ward,” Rizzi said.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.