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Heads up; Bengals eye NFL edicts

Alex Erickson eyes the NFL's new kickoff.

While the Bengals continued to implement their off-season changes during this week’s voluntary practices, the NFL owners were giving the teams some significant involuntary changes to the playbook with the passage of two major items this week in Atlanta.

As they gathered for the first of three weeks of voluntary practices leading into next month’s mandatory minicamp, the Bengals were unclear of the impact of one rule change and one point of emphasis.

Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who was one of the coaches who consulted with the league on re-configuring the kickoff to make it safer, has spent the offseason preparing his players for the changes. The other major rule, the more murkier point of emphasis covering players who initiate contact with their helmets are now subject to ejection after an in-game video review, has them convinced nothing has changed.

“It’s what we always teach,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “You tackle with your eyes.”

“It’s going back to when I played. Its how I was taught and what I teach,” said linebackers coach Jim Haslett, the 1979 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. “Head up. Keep the head up. Get out the old neck collars.”

“What has always been illegal is illegal now,” said safety George Iloka.

But eyebrows were raised when the league put offensive and defensive line play under the umbrella, igniting questions about the ability of offensive lines to fire off the ball in the running game. Some have even predicted the demise of the three-point stance or off-tackle football.

Offensive line coach Frank Pollack and left guard Clint Boling, dean of the line in his eighth season, don’t see it. Boling said the team has been shown clips of the dos and don’ts, but none on line play.

“It’s going to be really hard to regulate interior play,” Boling said. “If they’re going to enforce that, I can promise you there’s a lot you can go find on tape and they weren’t on the cutup. I haven’t heard anything about O-line play or D-line play. I don’t think we’re changing what we’re doing up front.

“It’s not like it’s a huge rule change. It’s just see what you hit. Now they’re going to be enforcing things like that. But that’s the way we’re taught. You’re supposed to keep your head up. I don’t see it being a huge change up front … It’s not like they’re coaching guys to put their heads down.”

Pollack, who played guard for the 49ers in the ‘90s, doesn’t see the death of the three-point stance.

“I don’t,” he said. “I don’t teach guys to head butt with the top of the crown. That’s dangerous. Head up and hands. See your target. Punch with your hands.”

It remains to be seen how the officials call it. But when it comes to the new kickoff, it remains to be seen how the dust is going to clear now that wedge blocking is outlawed, the kick-off team can’t get a running start, eight of the return team’s players must start out in a 15-yard zone near midfield and any kick that hits the ground in the end zone is an automatic touchback.

Clayton Fejedelem hopes the new rule adds to his tackles total.

“There might be bigger hits on it now,” said third-year safety Clayton Fejedelem, a Pro Bowl teams alternate last season who led the Bengals’ specialists with 15 tackles. “You can’t have a wedge. So if you beat your first-level block, then you’re running scot free at the returner.”

“There’ll be a lot more returns where it’s just a lot of one-on-one blocks,” said wide receiver Alex Erickson, the incumbent returner and 2016 AFC kick return champion as a rookie. “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.”

That’s a good way to get Simmons peeved. Don’t call it a punt play.

“When it comes to the spacing of blockers and cover players, it is like a punt in that sense,” Simmons said. “But 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.”

Bottom line? No one knows what’s going to happen on the new kickoff. How are teams going to approach it and what exactly can the players get done in the new alignment? Tune in.

Fejedelem says the Bengals have to rip up their schemes, like every team in the league, but he knows no one has thought about it more or is more prepared than Simmons.

“It levels out the playing field,” Simmons said. “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. Does that make people want to kick it deep? Maybe so. So you pick your poison on the depth of the kick.”

No one knows, of course, what’s going to happen. Simmons doesn’t see traits changing, but now speed, athleticism and ability to tackle in space are even more coveted. With no wedges allowed and only three players deep, the assumption is linemen are no longer going to be on the field for fear they can’t handle the ball. Erickson, though, is OK.

“Returners are returners. That’s not going to change,” Simmons said.

Simmons can see the rule influencing some teams opting to change the structure of their rosters. Maybe, say, keeping an extra cover player like a safety instead of a receiver. But even though linemen now figure to be extinct on kickoffs, that won’t impact their numbers since maybe it means only about five snaps a game for them.

The players appreciate the bid for safety, but Fejedelem and Erickson also know what they signed up for.

“I don’t mind it,’ said a smiling Erickson of the pounding. “But I’ve never been on the wedge.”

Fejedelem wonders how safe the returner is going to be now that he’s not protected by a wedge. Cover players can be doubled teamed at the first level, but not the second.

“Even though you don’t have a running start, if you beat those guys up front, you’ve got free sailing,” Fejedelem said. “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.”

Erickson doesn’t mind fending off the swarm.

“That’s all right,” he said. “That’s our job back there.”

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