With all the debate on the rule change that moved kickoffs up five yards to the 35-yard line this season, it was hardly surprising that 49 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks over the NFL season’s opening weekend.
What wasn’t expected was for three of the kickoff returns to be brought back for touchdowns, tying a league record for Week One. So much for the rule change helping only the team covering the kick.
“I think it surprised a lot of people,” said Jerry Rosburg, the Ravens’ assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. “Given the guys that brought them back, that didn’t surprise me. These are really high-quality, very-skilled athletes. Whether you bring it from five yards deep or are catching it at the 10-yard line, when these guys have the ball in their hand, they’re dangerous. That will still remain to be true.
“What will be interesting to find out, as we go down the stretch here, is how many of those kicks will be brought out when the game is tight in the second half when you have a lead. Those things could change the whole scope of the kickoff return.”
The rule change, which was put in place to try and improve player safety, has been criticized league wide by players and coaches who felt like it would nullify an important — and exciting — aspect of the game. However, Rosburg admitted that he may have underestimated the effect of the kick covering team getting five fewer yards to build up momentum before approaching the end zone and converging on a returner.
“I don’t think that it’s necessarily an advantage for the return team. I think, perhaps, that the five-year start for the kickoff cover team was more of a factor than I originally anticipated it being,” said Rosburg whose kick coverage unit allowed an average of 34.3 yards on three returns in a 35-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“When we look at the video and where the blocks are being made, and how they’re being made, it’s a different feel than it was a year ago. The blocks are much deeper. There’s not as much space in between the returner and the blockers as we thought there might be. This week, we’ve got to do a better job of fielding that space and defending it.”
Rosburg also acknowledged that he was surprised to see so many returners taking the ball out from the back of the end zone rather than settling for the touchback. Green Bay Packers rookie Randall Cobb had the longest return of the week with a 108-yard touchdown against the New Orleans Saints. San Francisco’s Ted Ginn Jr. scored from 102 yards out against Seattle, while the Vikings’ Percy Harvin took it in from 103 yards on the opening kickoff against the San Diego Chargers.
Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, had one 37-yard kick return last Sunday on a ball that he admitted he normally would have left for a touchback before this year’s rule change.
“I looked at it like last year, it was backed up five yards and nobody would bring the ball out when it was five yards in the end zone. Now since it’s five yards closer, they will all bring it out five yards deep,” Webb said. “It seems like the geometry is messed up a little bit. We’re still checking it out, but it seems like the timing is messed up somewhere in there. That’s why it seems like there will be plenty more [kick return touchdowns].”