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Summer School: Kickoffs, and the new kickoff rules, explained

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The NFL has overhauled the rules regarding kickoffs, but what goes into the play, anyway?

NFL: International Series: New York Giants at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Two teams line up on opposite ends of the field while stadium speakers blare out a song. Let’s just say that it’s Hell’s Bells by AC/DC, the tolling of the massive iron bell the iconic opening of an iconic album for an iconic rock band just fits one of the most iconic moments in American sports.

The kickoff has wormed its way throughout the American lexicon, with the term being used to denote the start of pretty much everything — even the beginning of other sporting events. But that doesn’t change the fact that special teams, and kickoffs in particular, are opaque to many football fans, both casual and devoted alike.

It doesn’t help that the NFL is constantly tweaking — or outright changing — the rules regarding kickoffs. So we’ll use our final Summer School session before training camps kick off (pun absolutely intended) to take a look at kickoffs, and how this year’s rule changes will impact them.

The Kickoff

Kickoffs mark the start of the first and second halves, as well as the change of possession after a scoring play (field goal or touchdown). The kicker places the ball on a 1-inch tee on the 35-yard line, and is allowed to place the ball anywhere on that line between the hash marks. The goal of the kickoff is to either land the ball in the end zone, forcing a “touchback” wherein the ball is placed at the 25-yard line, or force a return which the coverage players keep to a minimum.

Coverage players typically line up in a “5x5” formation, with five players on either side of the kicker.

Depending on the kickoff strategy, teams can load one side of the field or the other in a “6x4” alignment, however the balanced “5x5” alignment is the most widely used.

The job of the coverage players is to run down the field in generally parallel lines, which are referred to as “coverage lanes.” It is vitally important for coverage players to stick to these prescribed lanes as spacing and cooperation between players help to keep the blockers on the return team from opening gaps for returners.

Coverage teams typically use the kicker and players closest to the sidelines, L1 and R1 as they’re numbered above, as a “last line of defense”. You can see this when we run the play through:

In this case the R1 is Landon Collins, who hangs back while the rest of the coverage team (sans the kicker and L1) take on their blocks and deny the returner a lane up the middle. Dwayne Harris is able to make his blocker miss, but also fails to make the tackle. What he does do is force the returner outside, where the sideline and the rest of the coverage force him to Collins.

There are a few variations on the kickoff that teams use in special circumstances. The first of these is when the receiving team has a particularly dynamic returner — a Tyreek Hill or Tyler Lockett — that the kicking team just does not want to catch the ball cleanly. In those situations kickers might resort to either squib kicks or pooch kicks.

A pooch kick sees the kicker try to launch the ball high into the air with the intention of forcing a player other than the intended returner to field the ball. This also allows the kicking team to force the ball to one side of the field, and use a 6x4 to flood that side of the field with defenders. The pooch kick cedes distance for the opportunity to keep the ball away from a dangerous returner, and it also runs the risk of winds or poor aim

The squib kick has a similar aim, but sees the kicker boot the ball along the ground, often no more than 10 feet above the turf, leading to an unpredictable path once it bounces the first time. As with the pooch kick, the squib aims to force a player other than the intended returner to field and return the ball. If the return team does allow the kick to reach the returner, the kicking team will likely have more time to get into place to defend the return. Of course, with the ball bouncing unpredictably, there is the potential for the ball to bounce out of bounds, hurting the kicking team.

The final variation is the on-side kick, which teams generally reserve for dire (or surprising) circumstances. The on-side kick generally sees the kicking team line up in a 6x4 alignment with the kicker taking only a short run-up to the ball. His only goal is to create a bouncing, difficult to field, kick that travels as close to the 10-yard minimum as possible. The goal of the on-side kick is for the kicking team to force an error in fielding the ball, and then recover the kick to regain possession with good field position. They are generally used when a team is trying to make up a deficit late in the game and can’t afford to go on defense. Occasionally, teams will use a “surprise” on-side kick out of a traditional 5x5 alignment and steal momentum early in the game.

The Rule Changes

The NFL made several changes to the kickoff rule this offseason, and they could dramatically change the play.

No Running Start

As you could see in the gif above, the kicking team got a running start from behind the 34-yard line — they just couldn’t pass that line before the ball was kicked. Now the coverage players must line up on the line with the kicker, and can’t start down the field until the ball is kicked.

Set-Up Zones For Blockers

Previously, blockers could line up pretty much anywhere they wanted on their side of the field. Now, the NFL is forcing 8 of the 10 blockers to line up within a 15-yard zone near midfield. This makes blocking for kickoff returns roughly similar to blocking for punt returns.

This change also limits receiving teams to just two blockers back by the returner. One of the biggest effects of this is the elimination of the wedge block. The two blockers back by the returner are no longer allowed to link arms and block a single coverage player.

Finally, blockers are no longer allowed to engage coverage players until they have passed mid-field.

No More Kneeling

In one last change, returners are no longer required to kneel after catching the ball in the end zone for a touchback. Instead, if the ball touches the ground in the end zone it will automatically be placed at the 25-yard line. Now returners only have to catch the ball in the end zone if they intend to return it.

What do the changes mean?

Ultimately, each of these changes are designed and intended to increase player safety.

By keeping coverage players from getting a running start and keeping blockers closer to mid-field (but not allowing them to engage after mid-field) the NFL hopes to reduce the number of violent collisions. Collisions will still occur but the hope is that players won’t be running head-long into each other at full speed.

Likewise, eliminating the wedge prevents blockers from delivering punishing hits to coverage players.

The changes could have the side effect of making the play more exciting as well as safer.

By forcing coverage players to wait until the ball is kicked to start running, it will take longer for them to get downfield, giving blockers more time to get in position. Likewise, by keeping the majority of the blockers upfield, they could have more time to set their blocks before the returner gets there, and the end result could be more big returns and — potentially — touchdowns.

Ultimately, the rule changes combine to make kickoffs more like punts, a more exciting play, anyway.

With any new rule change, the league will scramble to figure out new ways to gain the maximum advantage and exploit any unintended consequences. How that happens is something legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri is looking to see, saying to Rich Eisen, “It’s really going to be interesting how special teams coaches try to find a way gain an advantage. Are they going to kick it short and make teams return it or are they going to go ahead and try to kick it deep to get a touchback?”

The Giants have been working hard to overhaul their special teams, with a new coordinator for the first time since 2006. Combined with the new rules, the kickoff might just be a play worth watching again.