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Ravens, other teams try to exploit the new kickoff rule in a way the NFL didn't intend

Ravens, other teams try to exploit the new kickoff rule in a way the NFL didn't intend
Ravens' Kendrick Lewis caused the Browns' George Atkinson III to fumble during a kick-off return in the third quarter. The Browns' recovered the fumble. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

A new NFL rule meant to decrease the number of kickoffs that are returned has done just the opposite.

The Ravens are covering more kickoffs and kicking fewer touchbacks, and that has little to do with Justin Tucker's leg power.

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This season, the NFL is experimenting with placing touchbacks on kickoffs at the 25-yard line instead of the 20, as in previous years. The intent was to reduce the number of high-speed collisions between players that can contribute to serious injuries.

But while the new rule incentivizes returners to take a knee in the end zone, it makes teams discontent with conceding the 25-yard line when kicking off.

A five-yard difference might not sound like much, but Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg does not want to surrender any ground without pushing back.

"People don't necessarily want to give up five yards," he said. "We, on special teams, fight for every inch. If you're saying, 'We're going to take five yards from you,' we're going to fight for every inch, not just five yards."

In 2015, nearly 88 percent of the Ravens' kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Through two games this season, six of nine kickoffs (67 percent) have been touchbacks.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, criticized the rule change as not being "in the spirit of competition." Harbaugh's peers such as the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy, the Kansas City Chiefs' Andy Reid and the Washington Redskins' Jay Gruden have also questioned the new rule.

When owners voted on the rule during the NFL's annual meeting in March, it marked the second time in five years the league had tinkered with kickoffs for safety reasons. In 2011, the owners agreed to move the spot from which teams kick off from the 30 to the 35-yard line.

That 2011 adjustment worked. In 2010, teams returned 80.1 percent of all kickoffs. That number fell to 53.5 percent in 2011 and dropped to 41.1 percent in 2015.

Time will determine the effectiveness of the most recent change, but so far, the numbers seem to contradict the rule's design.

Through two games this season, 37.3 percent of kickoffs have been returned. That's an increase from the 30.1 percent of kickoffs returned through the first two games in 2015.

In the New England Patriots' 23-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 11, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski landed four of six kickoffs inside the 5-yard line, forcing the Cardinals' Andre Ellington to average 15.3 yards per return. His best return put the offense at the 21.

After the win, New England coach Bill Belichick summed up what many coaches and special teams coordinators are thinking.

"We're going to make them earn however many yards they get," he said. "We're going to make them earn them. We're not going to give them a quarter or 25 percent of the field. We're going to make them earn every yard that they get the ball out to. They're going to have to block, and run, and break a tackle, or whatever, to gain those yards."

Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson said he wouldn't be surprised if more teams follow suit "because a lot of people still truly believe you can kick it short and pin people inside the 20. I think there are probably more attempts at that than anything. ... I know as an offensive coach, I love to have the ball on the 25, instead of the 20."

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In the Ravens' game at Cleveland on Sunday, Tucker's first kickoff of the third quarter went to the 5-yard line, where Browns returner George Atkinson III caught it. Atkinson ran for 13 yards before fumbling. The Browns recovered, but they were also called for a holding penalty, and began an ultimately unsuccessful drive from their own 11.

Tucker's biggest fear is how the NFL will interpret the statistics and massage them to perhaps consider eliminating kickoffs entirely, which – in light of a heightened awareness of concussions and other injuries – is a topic that has been floated in the past.

"My concern is that the league is going to see more returns and they're going to say, 'Well, we tried something. So how about we just get rid of the kickoff?'" Tucker said. "That would be my concern. You don't say, '1 p.m. start from the 20.' You don't say, 'Oh yeah, the game's going to be a 1 p.m. start from the 25.' It's a 1 p.m. kickoff. You've completely changed the game, and you've fundamentally changed the game if you take out such a pivotal play."

Factors such as wind, weather and quality of returner play a role in the Ravens' decisions on kickoffs, according to Tucker and Rosburg. And don't forget the significance of the score late in a game.

"If you're going into the fourth quarter and you're facing a team that is a high-powered offense and you have a one-score lead, you're going to try to pin them down there," Rosburg said. "The 25-yard line might not be acceptable at that point in time. If you have a decent lead in the game, you might not risk it and just kick it out of the end zone. It's not only looking at the opponent and looking at what their returner is like or where you're at with your kickoff team, it's also looking at the game situation. The strategies will change, I think, play by play."

So is the touchback rule flawed? Rosburg said it isn't surprising that the new rule has increased the amount of kick returns we see.

"I think we all anticipated there were going to be more returns with the new rule," he said. "It has come to pass."

twitter.com/EdwardLeeSun

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