The Buffalo Bills' explosive talent on kickoff returns is going to be lessened this year by the NFL's rule change on returns.
How much will it be lessened? No one is sure yet, but Bills special teams coach Bruce DeHaven expects a major impact from the new rule that requires kickoffs to be taken from the 35-yard line instead of the 30-yard line.
"I think it's going to be more dramatic than what people even think," DeHaven said after a recent training camp practice. "Everybody I hear is talking about how there's going to be more touchbacks because they're kicking from the 35. The thing I don't hear people talking about is how much further down the field the coverage team is going to be when you're trying to bring the ball out."
DeHaven thinks coverage units are going to be in a better position to contain the play.
"Looking back at film from when the kickoff was at the 35, there's a difference in the penetration downfield, the depth," DeHaven said. "There's not as much room for the returner to really break back wide side as there is when the coverage team has to start at the 30. I think that's going to have as much of an impact on it as the depth of the kickoffs."
Last year, touchbacks occurred on 16.4 percent of NFL kickoffs. Teams had been kicking off from the 30 since 1994, when the starting point for the kick was moved back 5 yards. In 1993, the last year in which the kickoff was at the 35, there were touchbacks on 31 percent of kickoffs.
However, the number of touchbacks have steadily risen the past decade. In 2000, only 9 percent of kickoffs were touchbacks. More proficient kickers give reason to think the touchback total will be bigger than in '94.
DeHaven thinks so. Bills kicker Rian Lindell had touchbacks on 8 of 67 kickoffs last year (11.7 percent). Lindell's kickoffs averaged 63.6 yards (just inside the opponent's 7-yard line). However, that included many directional kicks, in which Lindell was not trying to get as much distance as possible.
"When I went back after the rule change and I looked at his kickoffs," DeHaven says, "I extrapolated that there was a chance he could have had 26 or 27 touchbacks kicking from the 35. Now, you never know how far out of the end zone some of these guys are going to bring the ball."
"I think it'll definitely be nice," said Lindell of the rules change. "I'll take it."
New Bills return man Brad Smith ranked second in the NFL on kickoff returns last year with an average of 28.6 per return. C.J. Spiller had a 95-yard kickoff return for a TD and averaged 23 yards a return. Leodis McKelvin ranked third in the NFL in 2008 in kick return average.
Obviously there will be a fair number of kickoffs returned. But players are not quite sure what kind of results to expect.
"Pretty much every team directional kicks," Lindell said. "Now they may say, you know what, let's put it on the hash. If they return it, they return it. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out."
Coverage men also must deal with a rules change. They no longer can get a full running head start in covering the kickoff. Some part of their body must be touching the 30-yard line once the official blows his whistle to start the play. They only get a 5-yard head start.
"I don't think that's going to be an issue at all," DeHaven said. "I think guys are going to be nearly full speed when they hit the line. Where it is going to make a difference is it's going to force the kickoff teams to have a more standard formation lining up. You're not going to see all the motion and the guys kind of breaking out of the huddle."
Bills special teams man Jon Corto said coverage men must decide whether to use a three-point or two-point stance.
"In the three-point you can obviously get out a little bit faster, however you're not able to see the field as well," Corto said. "You can't see if they come up to quick-block you. Some guys have used that 10 yards [run-up] to their advantage. They time it up perfect. They're going to need to adjust. Some guys who aren't as quick, that allows them to get a full head of steam. The quicker guys might benefit more because they'll get up to full speed faster."
Lindell had two kickoffs on Saturday in Chicago, one for a touchback and one that was returned 70 yards by the Bears. The Bills did not use their special-teams regulars on either kick, but coach Chan Gailey said he needs to see better coverage from his younger players. Leaguewide, there were 44 touchbacks on 140 kickoffs on the first weekend of preseason, a rate of 31 percent.
Note: The start time of Saturday's preseason game at Denver has been changed from 8:30 to 9 p.m.