Special teams sea change

Darrin Simmons is looking at a major kick to his playbook.

The Bengals are bracing for major revisions in their special teams playbook as Darrin Simmons emerged from the NFL’s safety summit Wednesday pleased with how the league responded to the coaches’ proposal to make the kickoff safer with massive changes.

Things are moving faster than Clayton Fejedelem, the Bengals’ special teams Pro Bowl alternate last season with 15 tackles.  The owners could approve the new kickoff at their meeting later this month.

“We recognized we need to make the play safer,” said Simmons, calling the proposal merely preliminary. “We’re trying to take the steps as coaches to do that. I think the league will respond to that well. We had very good feedback in the meeting. I thought it was very, very productive. It was a good thing.”

Simmons, the club’s special teams coordinator, made the trip to New York along with eight other teams’ coaches that proposed the biggest changes ever to one of football’s oldest and recognizable plays. It not only transforms how the play is blocked and covered, but also which players are doing it.

“We’ve made incremental changes down through the years to the play, but now we’ve made them all at once,” Simmons said. “Schemes and concepts will change.”

Simmons says the proposal puts more emphasis on speed rather than size:

_Changing the alignment of the return team. Only three players can be deep, including the returner. The eight players lined up at their 40-yard-line can’t leave until the ball is kicked.

“You’re going to need players that can handle the ball if there are only three of them,” said Simmons of the new back line.

_There is no two-man wedge blocking. Usually five have dropped back and, in the past, the Bengals have protected their returners with wedges from big men like defensive end Jordan Willis, right tackle Jake Fisher and a rookie three technique named Geno Atkins.

“With no wedges, there’s going to be more of a need for players that are athletic enough to avoid blocks on the first and second levels,” Simmons said. “You don’t need as much size to take on the wedges.”

 _No running start for the kicking team. Cover players must line up no deeper than one yard behind the restraining line, which would be the 34 of the cover team.

“Our contention is it would give the return team a chance to get back and get set,” Simmons said. “Maybe the cover players don’t have the same speed with the hope of reducing the violent collisions.”

Assistant Brayden Coombs calls the proposal "a hybrid," of punt and kick.

Back at Paul Brown Stadium special teams assistant Brayden Coombs wonders when the drastic changes hit since the Bengals have just one teams period each in the 10 OTAs and three rookie mini-camp practices during the spring. He sees the kickoff now as “a hybrid,” play where the ball is kicked from the tee but the coverage and return schemes resemble punts.

“I think I’m looking at my July,” Coombs said Wednesday with a smile as he anticipated what the new rule does to changing the playbook.  “When you go through a complete rule change like this there are going to be sections of it that have to be re-done from scratch.  The biggest thing is just the unknown. We may all know the rules, but there’s room for different interpretations within the rules. So you don’t know what teams are going to do against you.”

For instance, will teams try to pop up kicks in the air into what would be a vast a no man’s land inside the 40? Will teams have to be more defensive returning the ball? Coombs thinks the biggest change is the formation.

“On offense, it would be like changing the rules for eligibility,” Coombs said. “If you change the formation drastically, you’re changing the way the game is played. That’s what is going to make it an entirely different play.”

Simmons emphasizes this is all “very preliminary … fluid,” so it’s a bit early to wonder if it could mean a change in the composition of rosters. Maybe one more linebacker or safety or receiver and one fewer lineman? But then, it’s only one play.

“Potentially that could come into play based on the formation of that one play,” Simmons said of the roster makeup.  “The other side of that, too, I think is that it also affects your cover players.  There’s a need for more speed. You’re in more of an avoidance mode since there are no more wedges.”

Although it is a major overhaul, Simmons has lived through the tweaks of the play in his 16 seasons in charge of the Bengals’ kicking game during the shift to safety. Once upon a time special teams were glorified as the NFL’s “Suicide Squads.” No more.

 Simmons has seen the kickoff moved from the 30 to the 35 and the touchback moved out to the 25 from the 20. Not so very long ago players on the kick team could line up anywhere they wanted. Then, they had to line up on least the 30. Now they’re at the 34. A few years ago they wiped out the three-man wedge.

And while Simmons says it would be a challenge to implement such significant changes in mid-swim, he also says it’s a relatively modest proposal.

“It does represent doing things gradually,” Simmons said. “We talked about other steps; even more drastic steps we felt would reduce (collisions). But maybe we need to let the play evolve a little bit, too. Don’t go from A to Z. Let’s go from A to M. And let it develop over the next couple of years. This is the first step.”

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