There are a plethora of rule changes coming to kick returns that include no more wedge blocking, coverage players not getting a running start, eight of the return team’s players must lineup inside a 15-yard zone near midfield, and any kick that hits the ground in the end zone is a touchback.
It is quite a bit to unload, especially so close to the season. It isn’t just a simple change that teams can run with. It changes the entire way the play is run.
“I view it more like an offensive play. It’s all about timing. Blocks have to be timed in relationship to the returner. It’s more like an offensive play in terms of timing and it still is,” Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.
“It levels out the playing field. In the past the advantage has been to the kicking team. You’d see teams that hang it up short of the goal line and stop people short of the 25. But they also had the option to kick it deep and get the touchback. There’s no doubt cover players won’t get down field as fast as they did.”
It seems from the way Simmons talks about it that more teams will consider kicking it deep now. It would be weird to see the kicking team continue to choose to kick it short if they no longer have the advantage. The question then becomes if returners will still choose to take the touchback with the new way they are being covered and blocked for.
“There’ll be a lot more returns where it’s just a lot of one-on-one blocks,” Alex Erickson said. “You just read it out and make cuts. It might turn into a little more of a punt play. As a returner, you’re going to have to hit it a little faster, even harder because it’s harder to sustain those single blocks across the board. Hitting it. Trusting it.”
It seems like as fans we should expect a huge feeling out process from most teams. Returners will have to prove they can consistently get farther than the 25-yard line even if the ball is kicked deep.
If returners struggle then we could just see less and less returns across the league. Of course, anyone fearing that big hits will stop with the new rules shouldn’t be worried.
“There might be bigger hits on it now,” Clayton Fejedelem said. “You can’t have a wedge. So if you beat your first-level block, then you’re running scot-free at the returner.”
“Even though you don’t have a running start, if you beat those guys up front, you’ve got free sailing. It’s going to be interesting. If you get to that second level and someone’s trying to block you, there’ll be a flag. But how can you let your returner get blown up? That’s going to be interesting.”
It seems like the preseason will be a very interesting time to watch how these changes play out. Teams will have to alter personnel since linemen won’t have the same range or ability to tackle in the open field. It will also put a premium on getting quality blockers in that 15-yard zone.