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Broncos’ special teams adjusting to new kickoff rules

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New special teams coach Tom McMahon believes the smaller, quicker returners will be “back in the game” thanks to the changes

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, Broncos Country!

As you most likely recall, last month the NFL changed the kickoff return rules, and now the Broncos - and 31 other teams - are trying to figure them out.

If you don’t remember the changes - or never really cared because the Broncos have generally been mediocre to terrible at (catching) returning the ball - SBNation has done the hard work and explained them here:

To summarize - kickoff returns will be easier and covering them will be harder. And this will happen because the coverage team no longer gets a running start to the kickoff, eight of the 11 players on the return team must line up in a 15-yard zone near midfield, and wedge blocks are no longer allowed.

As you no doubt have guessed, the purpose behind these changes is to make the kickoff safer by slowing down coverage and preventing massive hits on players.

Broncos’ new special teams coach Tom McMahon admitted it’s been a little tough to get used to.

“You know what, we’re working on it,” he said the final week of OTAs, noting that the hardest part has been getting the kickoff team used to starting just one yard off the line - rather than getting a running start - when the ball is kicked off. McMahon and assistant coach Chris Gould experienced that at the Senior Bowl for the first time. “Gould and myself were on the side thinking ‘We have the slowest team in football.’ But it’s just simply because you have to start from...basically he has to kick it before you go.”

McMahon said the jury is still out on whether it’s an obvious advantage for the return team, but he’s leaning that way.

“It’s slower now. You’re going to get down the field slower,” he said, adding that the on-side kick is going to be tougher since the players getting to the ball don’t get a running start.

The rules also state that the return team has to keep eight players in a “set-up zone” that is a 15-yard zone near midfield, forcing blockers to run down the field with the coverage team, similar to punts.

Fortunately, McMahon noted that while in Indianapolis, a lot of teams were afraid of the on-side kick from Adam Vinatieri, so they lined up eight in a zone just in case.

“From a kickoff return standpoint, stealing their ideas,” McMahon said of the opposing teams, adding that on the other side of the equation, the answer has not been fully worked out. “Now from a kickoff standpoint, no I don’t. I don’t have all the answers yet.”

Given that the return team is likely to have a slight advantage under the new rules, McMahon believes “the little man is back in” when it comes to NFL kickoff returns.

“I mean the smaller returners are now going to be able to get back there because it is more like a punt return,” the special teams coach said. “You can take your best returner, you don’t need the big back that’s going to take the big shots coming through a wedge.”

Many fans may be disappointed to learn that McMahon sees Isaiah McKenzie as a potential special teams threat because of that.

“I’m excited to see what Isaiah can do,” he said. “You’re going to see the smaller guys, [Kansas City WR] Tyreek Hill, those type of body types back in this game, in my opinion.”

But don’t get too worked up. The coach also acknowledged that no specific returners have been decided yet.

“I think the returners look good. I think we have a stable of guys that can do it for us,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see who pops and who separates themselves. That’s what I’m waiting for. Nobody has separated themselves yet.”

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This will force blockers to run down the field with the coverage team, making blocking similar to that of a punt.

Poll

Do you like the ‘safer coverage’ rules for kickoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    If it keeps players safer, then yes.
    (90 votes)
  • 23%
    NO! Big tackles were the only fun part of kickoffs.
    (42 votes)
  • 27%
    Welp, Tyreek Hill might run back a TD every game now.
    (50 votes)
182 votes total Vote Now