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28 Jun 2006

Kickoff Returns: A Wedge Issue

by Michael David Smith

The kicker places the ball on the tee, then takes a few steps back. The returner waits patiently at the goal line, poised to grab the ball and take off running at full speed.

Those are the two images you see before a kickoff when you're watching a football game on TV. But what about the other 20 players? What role do they play?

Sadly, you could watch football on TV for a long time without finding out. So in two articles this summer, Football Outsiders will examine what happens on the kickoffs, with a special emphasis on some of the aspects that are often overlooked. Today we'll focus on the return team, examining the responsibilities of the front-line blockers, the middle blockers (commonly referred to as the wedge) and the return man.

The Front Line

If onside kicks didn't exist, the kickoff return as drawn up on a chalkboard would look pretty much like an offensive running play, with five blockers up front blocking straight ahead. But because of onside kicks, kickoff return units typically include five blockers lined up around the 42-yard line whose first responsibility is to make sure the kicking team doesn't try a surprise onside kick. If there is an onside kick rolling on the ground, the front-line players simply need to get to the ball and fall on it. If there is a short and high onside kick, the players on the front line are advised to call for a fair catch. Fair catches rarely happen on kickoffs, but they're necessary in the case of a short and high kick because players on the front five aren't accustomed to handling the ball, meaning there's a high likelihood they'll drop it. A front five player isn't likely to gain many yards advancing the ball anyway, so the risk of a fumble isn't worth the potential reward of a return.

But onside kicks make up only a small percentage of the plays that the front line players need to prepare for. Most of the job of the front line players involves getting into position to block, which means sprinting 20 yards downfield as soon as the ball is kicked, then turning around and identifying someone to block. For simplicity's sake, we'll label the five players on the front line as if they're offensive linemen: left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, right tackle. Those five players know before the ball is kicked who they're going to block. Most kickoff return units label the players they're blocking using the letter R or L and a number from 1 to 5. So the first player lined up to the right of the kicker is R1, while the player lined up three spots to the left of the kicker is L3. As the front five players are running down the field and getting into position, they know they'll have to turn around and immediately find five players to block. On a return up the middle, the left tackle would block L2, the left guard would block L1, the center would block R1, the right guard would block R2, and the right tackle would block R3.

The most important skill for a member of the front five is the ability to block in a wide-open area. Running downfield and getting into position to block a player who is running full speed toward you is a much different skill than blocking a player directly across the line of scrimmage. And getting into position in a hurry is important because illegal blocks typically come when the blocker doesn't get into position to block head-on. If a member of the front five gets passed by the player he's supposed to block, it's tempting to give a little shove in the back, but it's not worth the risk of penalty. The rule of thumb for front line players is that if you can see the name on the back of the jersey, raise your hands to show the officials that you're not illegally blocking the player in the back.

The front line players need to be good blockers, but they're rarely offensive linemen because they have to be fast enough to get into position before the opposing coverage team gets downfield. The front line players also need to be able to block a moving target. The one thing that makes the blocking scheme on kickoff returns easy is that return units don't bother with blocking the kicker, reasoning that a decent return man should be able to leave a kicker in his dust.

The Wedge

The players behind the front line are like lead-blocking fullbacks. They're known as the "wedge" because in many blocking schemes they line up in a wedge-shaped cluster to lead the return man up the middle. Unlike the front five players, the wedge players know the area they're supposed to block, but not the player. They get into position in front of the returner and block whoever gets through – against some coverage teams that align their wedge busters on the sidelines, the first players through might be L5 and R5, but it's also possible that two players on the front line will miss their blocks, requiring the wedge to block L1 and R2.

The league's best special teams coach, Bobby April of the Buffalo Bills, has an interesting philosophy when it comes to the wedge: He delegates the coaching of the wedge to the team's offensive line coach, reasoning that the blocking the wedge players give Terrence McGee is essentially the same as the blocking the offensive line gives Willis McGahee. McGee is a good return man, but the blocking in front of him is a frequently overlooked reason for his success.

When Eddie Drummond of the Lions averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns in 2004, he credited Detroit fullback Cory Schlesinger's lead blocking in the wedge as the most important aspect of the Lions' return game. In 2005, when Schlesinger broke his leg in the preseason and wasn't available for special teams duty, Drummond's return average dropped to 22.0 yards.

The term "wedge" goes back to the very early days of American football, when an offensive formation known as the "flying wedge" involved offensive blockers lining up before the snap in a V shape, linking their arms, and running toward the defense at full speed. The play caused a lot of injuries, which is why rules were instituted to force at least seven offensive players to line up on the line of scrimmage, and to prevent blockers from linking arms while blocking.

The Returner

A good return man has to have speed, of course, but good hands, good vision and an ability to change directions quickly are even more important. That need for good change-of-direction ability is why kickoff returners are usually small. The league's top 10 kickoff returners last season averaged 204 pounds.

The best pure kickoff returner in football is Jerome Mathis of the Houston Texans, a 5-foot-11, 172-pound wide receiver who went from Division I-AA Hampton in 2004 to averaging 28.6 yards a return in 2005. Mathis was a college track star, but there are a lot of college track stars in the NFL. His field vision sets him apart from the rest. Mathis will miss the beginning of the 2006 season with a stress fracture in his foot, which is a serious blow to the Texans.

In a revealing moment on the HBO series "Hard Knocks," which followed the Dallas Cowboys through the 2002 preseason, special teams coach Joe Avezzano watched an undrafted rookie return a kick, turned to head coach Dave Campo and said, "He's got speed, but he's got no feel for it." That "feel" is really about vision. Some players with the speed of a sprinter just run straight into someone on the coverage unit. Mathis and other top returners can see the running lanes open ahead of them and run into the open spaces.

A good example of a player who lacks that feel is Mathis's Houston teammate, Vernand Morency. Unlike Mathis, Morency just runs straight ahead, often directly into the opposing coverage team. That's why he averaged only 21.9 yards a return despite running behind the same blockers Mathis had.

Wrapping Up

In football, there are no individual achievements, but when a kickoff is returned for a touchdown, it's almost invariably described as an achievement by the return man himself. Even if a kickoff return is shown on multiple replays, television analysts usually treat the returner's 10 teammates as afterthoughts. Maybe that's because television makes the blocking on kickoffs look disorganized. It's anything but.

(Looking for more strategy minicamps? They are archived here. Last year's articles included zone coverage vs. man coverage, defensive line gap basics, and the I-formation.)

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 28 Jun 2006

47 comments, Last at 13 Aug 2006, 9:41pm by empty13

Comments

1
by steelberger1 (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 2:06pm

Occasionally the announcers will point out a great block...

2
by B (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 2:19pm

Great article, I've always wanted to know what goes on in a kickoff return.

3
by ABW (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 2:38pm

First off, let me say how much I like these strategy minicamps, and I think MDS does a great job with them.

What kind of players usually play in the wedge and on the front line? Seems like the front line is ideal for tight ends or WRs with good blocking skills - guys who run fast but also can block. Who plays in the wedge though? Obviously fullbacks, but most teams only have one or two of those. Do teams also put offensive lineman in the wedge? Do linebackers or other defensive players end up playing in the wedge?

Do all 5 of the non-front-line blockers get in the wedge? I seem to remember from the brief glances you get on TV of the blockers that there's only 3 guys in the wedge, which leaves two more guys blocking somewhere, but maybe I'm mistaken about that...as is noted in the article, it's nearly impossible to figure out what's going on on a kickoff by watching TV.

Anyhow, great article, and I'm really looking forward to the next one.

4
by Peter (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 2:50pm

Next step: return man DVOA. Well I guess that's sort of covered by special teams...

5
by sam_acw (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 3:26pm

strategy mini-camp rocks!!!!!

6
by Theo (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 3:28pm

The rule of thumb for front line players is that if you can see the name on the back of the jersey, raise your hands to show the officials that you’re not illegally blocking the player in the back.

If you see the name, you're looking in the wrong direction.
My rule of thumb is that if I can see the (front) numbers, I can block him. If not, I pick the next guy to block.

7
by Don Quixote (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 3:47pm

I thought Mike Westhoff was the best special teams coach in the NFL...(?)

But then again, I thought Dante Hall was the best kick returner -- what do I know?

8
by ToxikFetus (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 3:52pm

I didn't realize it was legal to call a fair catch on a kickoff. When was the last time this happened?

9
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 4:05pm

I thought Mike Westhoff was the best special teams coach in the NFL…(?)

I would've said John Harbaugh, myself. Philly was ranked in the top 5 of ST DVOA for his entire tenure save 2005 (and Philly clawed back to the top 5 in weighted ST DVOA by the end of the season) - similarly Philly's the only team ranked in the top 10 for 2000-2004 in Gosselin's special teams rankings.

Then again, Philly's always been weakest in punt and kickoff returns, so maybe not the best coach for this article. :)

10
by Jaws (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 4:13pm

DON'T KICK THE BALL TO DANTE HALL!

11
by asg (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 4:39pm

This article would be greatly helped by a diagram or two. Photoshop is your friend!

12
by krugerindustrialsmoothing (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 5:31pm

The term 'Wedge' actually goes back to a military formation of the Romans (or perhaps earlier). The concept however is very transferable to the football field.

13
by 72 (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 5:42pm

Re 3

There are varying formations you can use for kick returns the ones I have seen most often are the 5-4-2 (described in the article) and the 6-3-2. In the latter usually the return team has 4 men in the front line and two "up backs" behind them. Personally when I play I prefer to use the 6-3-2 formation as it is more flexible.

There are also lots of tricky things that can be done on kick returns that are not mentioned for example the LG and Rg can sometimes pull across the field and kick out a man on the opposite side of the field from where they started, which is always fun.

14
by Zac (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 6:12pm

Re: 8. I remember reading an article, or maybe saw it on TV, about onside kicks. Onside kicks changed drastically when one kicker (I don't remember which) realized that he could kick the ball so that it hit the ground, then bounce up into the air. I believe that's how modern onside kicks are done.

This was important because a kick off (like a punt) can basically be fair caught anytime before it hits the ground. But since these onside kicks had already hit the ground, a fair catch wasn't possible.

Another time we'll get into the rule that says that you can attempt a free kick for a FG on the play after fair catching the kickoff. I've never seen it done, but I hope for it every game I see.

By the way, they have fair catches on kickoffs in the Madden games. If your friend is doing an onside kick, sometimes you can time a fair catch in there.

15
by Englishbob (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 6:20pm

On a kick off, can you opt to kick the ball from your hands (ie punt it) rather than the tee? Apologies for lack of knowledge. Article is really interesting, many thanks.

16
by Zac (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 6:36pm

Englishbob, according to the NFL rules (click my name), no.

In the section on safety kicks, it says this:

1. In addition to a kickoff, the other free kick is a kick after a safety (safety kick). A punt may be used (a punt may not be used on a kickoff).

17
by Kachunk (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 7:41pm

Re 14: I believe the Lions did it last year--you missed your chance!

18
by Pete (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 9:13pm

I've never understood why blocking teams don't go after the kicker more often, particularly early in the game. If you can (legitimately) shake up the kicker a bit, or even injure him, the pay-off in terms of worse kicking for the remainder of the game must outweight the cost of leaving one potential tackler unblocked.

19
by PerlStalker (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 10:59pm

Another interesting kick return strategy (that is never used) involves fair catches on kick offs. The rules say that the clock doesn't start on a kick off until someone touches the ball. So, imagine a kick off with one second left on the clock. The return team doesn't have to return it. The could, instead, call fair catch and run a play. (This, of course, assumes that the kicking team kicks away and doesn't squib it.)

20
by chris (not verified) :: Wed, 06/28/2006 - 11:33pm

RE 18: Most teams don't do this as a common courtesy thing, you take out my kicker I take out yours, leaving both teams without a quality kicker. Kickers are fair game however if the kicker is attempting to get in on the play. Usually they play as a safety hovering around the 50 yard line.

21
by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 12:04am

Incidentally, it really is frustrating trying to watch a kickoff play and actually figure out who screws up in the initial few plays. I tried to do this with Penn State in the Orange Bowl, and I ended up solely with the wedge blockers, and even then, it was "guy on the right completely misses his block" because there was no way I could make out jersey numbers and the camera was zoomed out so far.

22
by Kuato (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 12:36am

Re: # 14

"Re: 8. I remember reading an article, or maybe saw it on TV, about onside kicks. Onside kicks changed drastically when one kicker (I don’t remember which) realized that he could kick the ball so that it hit the ground, then bounce up into the air. I believe that’s how modern onside kicks are done."

I might be smoking crack, but I think it was Olindo Mare of the Dolphins that first really perfected the "on-sides kick off the ground" type of play. Someone please correct me if I'm remembering incorrectly.

Peace
Christian

23
by EnglishBob (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 4:01am

Does anyone know how often onside kicks are recovered?

24
by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 10:36am

From Wikipedia:

"In 2004 in the NFL, 23% of onside kicks were successful (12 out of 52.)"

That doesn't really answer the question, as the rate of recovery for anticipated vs. surprise onside kicks varies.

25
by fromanchu (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 10:54am

fair catches on onsides kicks:
i do this all the time on madden rather than waiting and then downing it. it's worth it just to anger madden, who has the same surprised reaction every time.

26
by princeton73 (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 12:08pm

I’ve never understood why blocking teams don’t go after the kicker more often, particularly early in the game. If you can (legitimately) shake up the kicker a bit, or even injure him, the pay-off in terms of worse kicking for the remainder of the game must outweight the cost of leaving one potential tackler unblocked.

you're not related to Buddy Ryan, by any chance, are you?

27
by Sophandros (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 12:20pm

22: I'm pretty sure that this happened before Mare.

28
by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 1:09pm

I've missed minicamp.

What are the changes when a team uses two retun men? I know some teams use two returners quite often (Atlanta is one IIRC). Does the extra return man come from the front line or the wedge, and is the second returner chosen purely for his return skills or is there a compromise with his ability to block?

29
by TGT (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 2:59pm

@8
The Ravens fair caught two kickoffs week 13 against the Texans. The first one was at the end of the first half on a little pooch kick. Good play. The second one was the stupidest play I've ever seen. There's under 4 minutes left in the game and Baltimore is up by 1. BJ Sams is all alone under the kickoff at the 10 yard line. Instead of returning it to the 20 or 30, he calls for a fair catch. The Ravens immediately go 3 and out, setting up a go ahead field goal by the Titans on a drive without a first down. Sams is only saved my undying disgust when Kyle Boller miraculously drives 80 yards in 1 minute for a game winning field goal. I still think Sams only fair caught the kickoff because he saw someone do it in the first half and thought it was neat.

30
by Jamie T. (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 4:32pm

#14,#17

It was actually the Titans. The try failed when Baronis, the FG and kickoff kicker lined up like he was going to kick a FG instead of a kickoff. According to Fisher, this limited his distance, and the try fell short. Fisher wanted him to kick it like a kickoff, but there was some miscommunication. You can do this because the defence isn't allowed to contest the kick. It was pretty strange to see the holder and the kicker lined up while the rest of the kicking team huddled 30 yards back and the defense huddled 30 yards in front. It reminded me of a technical foul shot in basketball. I believe the try was a 60 yarder.

31
by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 6:59pm

"Most of the job of the front line players involves getting into position to block, which means sprinting 20 yards downfield as soon as the ball is kicked, then turning around and identifying someone to block" Just once I'd like to see the front line charge forward and try to take out as many of the kick coverage team as possible before they can run downfield, instead of retreating into blocking positions downfield. It might create a lot of running room (initially) for the kick returner if a few coverage guys are knocked on the ground before they've even crossed midfield.

32
by Fnor (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 8:20pm

James:

If I recall, generally the second return man is mostly chosen for his speed and return skills, since generally he is there to cover one half of the field for return, then block behind the wedge if his partner receiver it.

33
by Bill Krasker (not verified) :: Thu, 06/29/2006 - 8:32pm

EnglishBob (#23):

I discussed the success rate on anticipated onside kicks in an article from early this year (see link). Somewhere around 12% or 13% is the approximate success probability.

34
by Englishbob (not verified) :: Sun, 07/02/2006 - 5:10pm

Rather than using a wedge, as a relatively high risk option how about lining up four kick returners and using lateral passing between them? With 7 others blocking, I would suggest that a well drilled team with good hands could surprise the kick off team and maybe open them up for a very good return/ chance of TD, obviously with the risk of a fumble. Does anyone know if something like this has been tried or is it just considered too risky?

35
by Sid (not verified) :: Sun, 07/02/2006 - 7:39pm

There have been various kick return plays drawn up with laterals. The infamous hook-and-ladder, the Music City Miracle, the one where the Saints returned it for the TD but Carney honked the XP.

In desperate situations, the play is often drawn up with laterals. I don't think they have 4 guys back, though.

36
by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Mon, 07/03/2006 - 6:55am

I think English NFL fans who have played rugby but not football tend to overestimate two things, namely how much harder it is to throw and catch a ball rugby-style with pads on than it is without, and how much more damaging a fumble is in football than in rugby. There is a reason why teams don't draw up a lot of plays with laterals, let alone multiple laterals.

37
by JWL (not verified) :: Mon, 07/03/2006 - 5:37pm

re: 35

That Saints play was not a kickoff. It was a scrimmage play.

Aaron Brooks completed a 30-yard pass to Donte' Stallworth. After laterals to Michael Lewis, Deuce McAllister, and Jerome Pathon, the Saints scored a TD to cut Jacksonville's lead to 20-19.

38
by Englishbob (not verified) :: Mon, 07/03/2006 - 6:27pm

The only lateral I remember clearly is the stupid one made by Randel El to a surprised Ward. But if the play is designed and the receiver ready- surely its little different to an option pass?
I accept the point that catching is tougher in pads, but I think its the helmet marginally reducing peripheral vision that's the real culprit. Off subject but I'd love to know what the outcome typically has been for lateral's up the field?

39
by Sid (not verified) :: Mon, 07/03/2006 - 7:36pm

RE: 37

That's right, my bad.

40
by Sisyphus (not verified) :: Tue, 07/04/2006 - 2:04pm

Re: 31 The block would do no good, if you block that early in the play they get up and now the blocker is beside or behind the cover man. Blocking is about when, even a mediocre block (sometimes just getting in the way) in the right place at the right time can be just what is needed to spring a return or a play from scrimmage. You don't have to pancake a guy to have an effective block.

41
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 07/04/2006 - 3:16pm

I think English NFL fans who have played rugby but not football tend to overestimate two things, namely how much harder it is to throw and catch a ball rugby-style with pads on than it is without, and how much more damaging a fumble is in football than in rugby.

What's the penalty for a forward lateral in rugby? Most of the multiple lateral hail-mary returns I've seen have ended in a forward lateral penalty. It's not easy to make sure that a toss is backwards when you're running forward.

42
by 72 (not verified) :: Tue, 07/04/2006 - 5:39pm

Having played both rugby and American footabll (in Scotland) I can appreciate how much harder it is to lateral in football than in rugby. The ball in rugby is shaped to be more suitable to passing sideways (being larger and rounder) whereas a footabll is better shaped for throwing forwards (have you ever tried to pass a rugby ball like a football?), factor in the relative costs of losing it and a lateral makes very little sense in football unless times are desparate.

However the throwback returns and the reverse returns are always by far the most exciting. Does anybody know at what point teams start putting in Special Teams in the off-season? I have often wondered if this is indicative of how well their Special Teams perform and would be a good indication of how much importance the teams put on Special Teams.

Personally I think the importance of Special Teams is underrated in general (Though not by the authors and posters on this site).

(The team I play for did very little ST in the preseason and have been awful on them all season)

43
by Englishbob (not verified) :: Wed, 07/05/2006 - 5:17am

I've played both too but was a defensive Lineman so not well positioned to comment on how difficult it is to catch a lateral in football vs rugby!
It strikes me though that a lateral should be no more difficult than a shovel pass to catch. I appreciate it is high risk given the consequences of a fumble but still think it is probably under-used. I once played in a game with a designed play where the TE received a pass 10 yds out and then lateralled to a WR who came up in support. Worked very well (big gain before saftey got across) and I think it could work well on a very restricted basis in the NFL. Maybe the Redskins with Portis and Randel El are best equipped for this!

44
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 07/05/2006 - 11:39am

Englishbob:

What's the penalty for a forward lateral in rugby, though? Unless it's a designed play (see below), in order to avoid a forward lateral the player needs to basically stop his forward momentum and toss backwards. Just flipping the ball to the side is going to end up as a forward lateral.

And the yardage lost by the player killing his forward momentum is usually more than you'd gain by the lateral.

I once played in a game with a designed play where the TE received a pass 10 yds out and then lateralled to a WR who came up in support.

That's likely a hook-and-lateral. It's way too risky in the NFL except in rare situations. Usually there are too many defenders near the receiver for the ball to easily be lateralled safely and the WR to catch it cleanly.

45
by witless chum (not verified) :: Wed, 07/05/2006 - 2:19pm

Re: #14

Hanson used to split the uprights on regular kickoffs occasionally.

Re: #44

We ran that in H.S. We tried it on a 4th and 10 once and the defense expected it, overplaying the reciever to stop the lateral going to a halfback coming from out of the backfield. In their overplaying, however, they left the way open for the reciever to see what they were doing and pull the ball down and run for the first down.

46
by JayHak (not verified) :: Thu, 07/06/2006 - 2:10pm

The hook-and-latter works better at lower levels and not in the NFL for two reasons:
1. the opposition is less likely to be prepared for it, and
2. there are lots fewer receivers/defenders around to muck up the works, as was pointed out.

Regardless, there are usually a couple NFL games each year where teams try some variation, usually in desparation.

I played both football and rugby (both here in the States). I often wonder why the lateral is not used more in football. But the main reason it is not, to me, is the forward pass. The lateral, along with kicks, are pretty much the ONLY way to 'advance' the ball in rugby. Yes, the ball goes backwards on a lateral but the point is to find space and get around the defense. Why bother with that if you can pass over most of the defense?

Add to that football's blocking concept. In rugby, a proper lateral takes your defender out of the play. In football, you can do that much easier by blocking him (illegal in rugby).

Last - football players are so very specialized. This starts at the lowest levels. After years of coaching, a lineman might as well be handling a trout when a football finds his hands.

re: #44

There are basically 2 types of penalties in rugby that I recall:

1. the opposition gets the ball at the spot of the foul. The offending team goes back 10 yards. Depending on where the ball is, this would result in a free kick for points (placekick - 3 pts), or them running a play with the offending team back 10 yards. It can be pretty damaging depending on field position.

2. there is a scrum (usually at the spot of the foul) with the opposition's scrum half putting the ball in (which generally means they win the scrum).

47
by empty13 (not verified) :: Sun, 08/13/2006 - 9:41pm

aaahhhh, the Jax/NO game...

Jax, who I picked, covering the whole game...

Then the Stanford band play... just hit someone jacksonville...

TD. 20-19. push. for now. I was hollering at the tube, block the kick! After all, it is the saints. Letdown city, anyone?!

Shank. Push preserved.