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Kick re-start

Darrin Simmons

Suddenly, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons is finding out what life is like for his offensive cohorts in The Lockout. With the NFL competition committee recommending major changes in kickoffs that have shrunk the field and stunted the return game, he may be looking at junking a good portion of his playbook without the ability to teach the new scheme to his players.

After seeing the proposed changes that are going to be voted on next week by the owners at the NFL annual meetings in New Orleans, Simmons thinks the biggest one might be the abolition of any kind of wedge blocking.

"Since the beginning of time, some form of wedge blocking has been involved," Simmons said Wednesday. "This affects every team. I don't know how the rule is going to be written, but if you don't have at least two-man wedges, I would think everybody is going to have to rip it up. There'll be a lot more man-to-man schemes, that's for sure."

And that's not all as the league digested Wednesday's conference call in which NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay said there were several parts to overhauling kicks in order to enhance player safety.

If the owners pass it, the ball is going to be kicked from the 35 instead of the 30-yard-line. Defenders won't be able to line up as far as back as they want to gain momentum and must line up within five yards of the kicker. A touchback now goes out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20, and there is no wedge blocking where two teammates can line up close together to open up holes.

Simmons summarized his first take on the changes with, "the return game is slowed down, there are going to be more line-drive kicks into the end zone with kickers doing anything to get the ball in there, smart returners are at a premium now because it will be tougher to decide to take it out or set it down, and speed is even more important covering kicks."

Plus, the days running out it out from three and four yards deep in the end zone, he believes, are virtually over.

With indications there has been more evidence of concussions on kickoffs than from scrimmage, the committee sees the move as a deterrent to injuries if it becomes law.

"Both concussions and major injuries," McKay said. "Both are there in the play, and we feel both need addressing. We watched a lot of film and it is a play that we just think needs modification."

With Bengals kicker Mike Nugent seen as a middle-of-the-road kickoff guy and Cincinnati finishing 30th in the league in allowing average drive start (two return TDs will do that), this could be a role that impacts their foes more than the Bengals. 

Certainly Simmons feels it helps a team facing a Pro Bowl returner like the Browns' Josh Cribbs and hurts a team like Baltimore that had an NFL-record 40 touchbacks from kicker Billy Cundiff last year in allowing teams to start at their own 23.7-yard line, second best in the NFL. Now a touchback is five yards longer. And with cover guys now lining up five yards closer, Simmons thinks a guy like Cribbs is going to be catching more touchbacks. 

"A kickoff last year with a four-second hang time, if I stop the tape when he catches the ball at the goal line, most of the coverage guys are going to be somewhere from the 30 to the 35," Simmons said. "If you do that now with a four-second hang time to the goal line, there'll be anywhere from the 25 to the 30. And the returner hasn't even initiated the return. He's going to be trying to make guys miss at the 10- and 12-yard line."

Which is why Simmons thinks the days of the 103-yard returns are over and that someone even trying to run it out from deep in their own end zone is going to become a rarity. It also makes a guy like the Bengals' Quan Cosby even more valuable. The team's regular punt returner and sometimes kick returner, Cosby is highly regarded for his judgment.

It could also mean a different kind of player on the kick cover team. With players not allowed to line up as far behind the ball as they want in order to get a running start and return teams not being able to use wedges, the big, fast Adalius Thomas, James Harrison types are neutralized in the coverage game. It could become a matchup of small, quick waterbugs, but Simmons says it will take time to analyze that aspect of the game if the rule passes.

What we do know is that the Bengals are slated to play a slew of talented kick returners in 2011 that may now not be as effective. Baltimore rookie David Reed led the NFL, albeit with just 21 returns, and Pittsburgh rookie Emmanuel Sanders was 11th with just 25, but that's a total of four games. Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling, fourth in the NFL with 57 returns, Seattle's Leon Washington, eight with 54, Tennessee's Marc Mariani, ninth with 60, and Jacksonville's Deji Karim, 13th with 50, are all on the schedule.

Plus, many of the teams with the top kick coverage units that could be reeling are on the horizon. Division rivals Baltimore and Cleveland finished second and fourth respectively, followed by Seattle (fifth), St. Louis (seventh), Jacksonville (eighth) and Arizona (10th).

The committee believes they have balanced enough things out to soften the impact on the game itself and the players.

"The idea was to change the play but don't disadvantage either side, try to even out the effect to both the kicking team and the receiving team," McKay said. "One of the major points is that the touchback gets moved to the 25. Today, the average start line is about the 27, maybe 27.6 or 27.7, and so what we are saying is if you do have the ability to create a touchback, you are not gaining any great advantage by putting them back at the 20. 

"We think that there is a balance for the return team in the sense that we are moving the people that cover the kicks, they are moving up almost 15 yards from where they start. So instead of getting that running start they once had, they won't have that ability. They will only be able to get a five-yard running start instead of a 15-yard running start." 

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