Posted: 6:30 p.m.
In the tight, close-knit club of special teams, even a major rule change that abolished the once holy wedge block of three players or more in an effort to cut down on collisions can't dent the psyche of the craft.
"I'm going to blow up the two guys," said Bengals cover ace Kyries Hebert during the Bengals' second week of voluntary on-field workouts. "Soft guys run around. We blow up guys on this team. Have to. I'm trying to stay employed."
When the NFL owners back in March outlawed any wedge blocking with more than two players shoulder-to-shoulder, they managed to usher in a new era in what always been the most stable and pure phase of the game.
Imagine if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had gone into offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's office and told him he'd have to one less man on the line of scrimmage to protect Carson Palmer. Or called defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to tell him he couldn't blitz one of his safeties.
Now you've got an idea of Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons' offseason.
"As long as there's been football," Simmons said, "there's always been a wedge."
It puts more of a premium on athleticism than beef, but the jury is out on just how big of an impact the rule is going to have on the world of special teams. But for a guy like Hebert, it means the world, and he's not leaving his.
Simmons calls him "a coach's dream," a guy that goes all out all the time "and then some." Hebert, the former CFL safety, broke into the NFL last season with a team-leading 23 special-teams tackles that tied Reggie Myles' franchise record set in 2004. The rule could get Hebert the record by himself in '09.
"It makes my job a lot easier given I'm the guy running straight to the wedge," he said. "Now instead of having four guys I might have to defeat, I'm only going to have two. That means they don't have a chance. I don't think I can be blocked now. I'm real excited."
Simmons thinks the rule change means more athleticism is needed in both venues of kick cover and return. But given that the Bengals are like their AFC North brethren and aren't known as a big wedge team, he sees the change having more significance on kickoff coverage than returns.
"It's going to impact who we put out there on the field and I hope we put a more skilled, faster player in there and maybe take the bigger slower guy out and replace him with a smaller, faster player that can run around blocks," Simmons said. "Where we used to have to teach guys to 'fit' to stop a wedge, now that player might be able to run around the wedge to make the play. Because there aren't as many players he has to run around. He may have to run around one guy, where in the past it may have been two or three guys. You can't run around three guys and still make the play on the returner."
But before you start ripping up your 53-man rosters and giving those final spots to linebackers, safeties, running backs, and all the small guys, Simmons says there will be a feeling-out process in training camp and the preseason to see how the rule shakes out. It could happen, he says, but the final roster and the weekly 45-man lineup are not decided on special teams alone.
For instance, while everyone figures rookie defensive end Michael Johnson is going to make the team, what interests Simmons is at what position. If Johnson counts as a defensive lineman instead of a linebacker, that would delight Simmons since it would mean he'd get another linebacker as well as Johnson, the kind of linebackerish athletic sort that can help on special teams.
But there are going to be some things that are different.
Maybe the most significant impact is the penalty for having more than two men in a wedge. The third man has to be at least two yards from the wedge. It's a 15-yard flag from the spot of the foul, so with the average wedge starting at around a team's 15-yard line, that's going to put the offense in a severe hole near its own five.
Before the rule, Simmons says, most teams used three- or four-man wedges. Simmons chose three because unlike the four- or five-man wedges employed by teams like the Colts and Giants, it allowed his guys to execute double teams in an effort to eliminate a team's best player.
Now Simmons' challenge is to find out if his team is better suited for two two-man wedges or a two-man wedge with one man next to it.
"If you go with the two and one premise, the single guy has to be the more skilled player who can move in space and that might not be the best fit for an offensive lineman," Simmons said.
But he's used to having athletic guys back there because that's the way he likes it, so he doesn't see much of a change. There's no rocket science here no matter the rule. The Bengals have to find a kick returner that doesn't fumble and can do some damage on his own.
The one thing Simmons has going for him is that the core of his cover teams, led by Hebert, is relatively intact. Despite a massive amount of injuries that picked the unit clean last season, the Bengals finished 14th and 19th in punt and kick cover, respectively. Amazing, really, considering that during the year there were games the Bengals were dressing just five players at linebacker, the heart of special teams play.
"I don't know how drastic the change will be," Hebert said. "There are teams that are still going to push the limit. The third guy only has to be (two) yards (from another blocker). Teams are going to test it and have like a three-man wedge. We'll be prepared for it. You have to prepare yourself as if you don't know what the official is going to do. Especially the first game."
Citing a stat in a recent New York Times story on the rule change, Simmons noted that seven injuries occurred every 100 kick plays compared to five every 100 plays from scrimmage. Plus, he's got all-out guys like Hebert and he's watched guys like Broncos defensive end Darrell Reid spit out wedges for a living.
"That's two more injuries out of every 100 plays; and that could be punts or kicks," Simmons said. "It could have been a pulled muscle covering a punt or a pulled muscle covering a kick. Who's to say that won't keep happening?
"There are still going to be violent collisions. This won't take away violent collisions. Darrell Reid isn't going to change the way he plays. He's still going to come down, blow up the wedge and (drill) anybody who's in front of him."
But Simmons also knows that new drills and techniques are in order and he's already been laying the groundwork with informal walk-throughs. In coverage, the rule puts more emphasis on leverage rather than playing fits and gaps, as well as getting past people rather than going through them.
But Hebert will leave that to the other guys.
"I'm going to blow up those two guys and I just think it's going to make it harder to block me," he said. "And if two guys are on me, that leaves one of our guys free."
Some things may never change.