The NFL owners passed sweeping changes to how the kickoff play will be set up, executed and officiated next season.
As a quick recap, here are the five main changes:
1. Players on the kicking team cannot line up more than one yard from the point of the kickoff. The previous rule allowed players to line up five yards from the restraining line (35-yard line), allowing them to have more of a running start before the kick. Also, at least five players must be on either side of the ball, at least two players must be lined up outside the yard-line number, and two players between the inbounds lines and the yard-line number.
2. The return team must have eight players in the 15-yard “setup zone” (between their own 40-yard line and opponent 45-yard line) prior to the kickoff with only three players remaining outside that zone.
3. Wedge blocks are no longer permitted. Only players who were initially lined up in the setup zone may come together in a double-team block.
4. Until the ball is touched or hits the ground, no player on the receiving team may cross the restraining line or initiate a block against the kicking team in the 15-yard area from where the ball is kicked. This forces blockers on the receiving team to run back and block. The goal is to eliminate the jump-set or attack block and decrease high-speed collisions.
5. The ball is now dead if it is not touched by the receiving team and touches the ground in the end zone.
Asked about the changes last week, head coach Matt Patricia expects things to change quite a bit from a scheme standpoint due to the rule changes.
“There’s certainly some different, we’ll call them, some dangers that are going to show up that I think all of them aren’t really identified yet until all the coaches kind of put their heads together and say, ‘Hey this is a way for us to attack here,’ or ‘there might be an area here we could go after,’” Patricia said.
It will be interesting to see how teams approach the rule. Will they force opponents to return kicks, or pin them back and try to play a field position game? Who plays inside? Who plays outside? What three players make the most sense lining up outside the “setup zone” for the return team?
Joe Marciano, Detroit’s special teams coordinator, said the team will work on it and experiment with a couple different formations and return men.
He expects the kickoff to evolve to feature smaller players and better open-field blockers.
“I think on kickoff coverage, you’ll see more track teams out there,” he said. “More speed. You can’t put the o-linemen and d-linemen in there anymore or the guys that play in the wedge. Where are they going to play? They can’t play the front line. They’re not athletic enough to turn and run and backpedal and try to block a guy in space.
“We proved our wedge guys couldn’t do that well enough last year. I’m glad they’re taking the big guys out of there because we stunk.”
The Lions ranked last in the NFL last season in kickoff returns, averaging just 18.2 yards per return. They were No. 1 in punt returns, however.
Coverage wise, the Lions were 12th in kickoff coverage (20.4) and 17th in punt coverage (7.6). They ranked second in opponent average starting position after kickoffs (23.1-yard line).
Detroit finished sixth overall in Rick Gosselin’s comprehensive 2017 special teams rankings.
“I think you’re going to see a couple different strategies,” Marciano said of the kickoff. “Probably a time and place for both strategies. Hang that ball to the goal line and let’s go. Let’s pin them in there. We’ve done that several times last year and we were very successful. Our guys were mad when we told Sam (Martin) to kick it out of the end zone. They didn’t want it. Our guys were hungry.
“But then if you score and it’s a two possession game with three minutes to go, kick the ball out of the end zone. Don’t give them an opportunity to return.
“There’s going to be a time and place to kick the ball out of the end zone and a time and place to hang it high. Depending on people’s formations, there might be a time to bloop the ball over the front and let it hit and roll and see who’s going to come up with it. There’s a lot of things to experiment with.”