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Thursday, August 18, 2011
Kickoff rule: Go deep or hit high?

By Kevin Seifert

In case you haven't heard, the NFL has mandated all kickoffs be marked at the 35-yard line this season (and preseason). But we spent so much time dissecting the Chicago Bears' mistake/miscommunication/passive protest earlier this week that I think we missed the opportunity to examine both the larger picture and how this mess will affect the NFC North later this season.

Based on my unofficial review of play-by-plays from Week 1 of the preseason, 11 of the NFC North's 12 kickoffs from the 35-yard line traveled into the end zone. The other landed at the 1-yard line. Here is how it broke down:

There are a couple of interesting points to make here. Most notably, we saw some divergent strategies already starting to emerge.

For the most part, Green Bay Packers place-kicker Mason Crosby aired out his strong leg. But if the Packers thought that kicks deep into the end zone would automatically result in touchbacks, they found out otherwise Saturday night. The Cleveland Browns brought back all four kickoffs, returning them twice to the 20-yard line, once to the 21 and once to the 15.

Because some teams don't want to surrender the potential for a big kick return, it's quite possible we'll see many more kickoffs returned from previously too-deep spots in the end zone. Speaking generally this week, Minnesota Vikings place-kicker Ryan Longwell said: "I really do think that. I really think when they can judge the hang time of it, and you've got a lower kick that is 7 or 8 yards deep, I think that will come out a lot more often this year than it has in the past."

On the other hand, Longwell and the Vikings appeared to pursue an alternate goal. The strategy calls for putting high kickoffs short of the goal line in hopes of tackling the returner shy of the 20, where a touchback would be marked. It didn't work too well on Longwell's first kickoff against the Tennessee Titans, which landed 1 yard deep in the end zone and was returned to the 27-yard line. But his second kickoff generated more than four seconds of hang time, according to Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, and resulted in a return to the 11-yard line.

Said Longwell: "I think that you're going to see a lot of the coaches saying, 'If there is a touchback potential, why do we give them the 20 when we can hang it high inside and the 5, and tackle them inside the 20?' I think it's actually going to flip the other way, from just banging it out and giving them the 20, to 'Hey, let's stuff them inside the 20.' I think there will be a big movement [toward] that as well."

Meanwhile, there are a number of kickers and special teams coaches in the NFC North who are convinced this dynamic will diminish once the weather turns colder. Bears place-kicker Robbie Gould cited the weather issue as a reason he wanted to kick off from the 30 Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills, hoping it would give coverage teams a chance to cover a live return the way they presumably will need to in November and December.

"As the weather changes," Longwell said, "the ball just doesn't fly as far. It's a fact. I think those [deep] numbers will come down."

The Bears have four games at Soldier Field and the Packers have five at Lambeau Field after Nov. 1. We probably won't see many touchbacks, at least in those games. But I'm not convinced we'll see as many touchbacks as we think we might in the first two months of the season. Strategies and skills are still evolving. Stay tuned.