Strategy Minicamps
How to beat your opponent with 11 living, breathing chess pieces

Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

by Michael David Smith

“Stay in your lane.�

For decades, those words have been the foundation of every football coach's instructions to the players on his kickoff coverage unit. In the early days of football, the members of the coverage team just lined up across the field with five yards between them, then ran straight downfield and made sure that if the return man ran within their five-yard lane, they tackled him.

But as football strategy has progressed, kickoff coverage has become significantly more complex than simply telling the 10 men on the coverage team (excluding the kicker, whose job is to pray that he doesn't have to make a tackle), to stay in their lanes. If each of the 10 men care only about an area of real estate just over five yards wide, the kickoff return team's wedge would overpower the players in the center lanes and lead a long return up the middle every time.

In this edition of our off-season strategy minicamp, we'll look at the responsibilities of the 10 players on the kickoff coverage team. Although it might seem like each player's job is as simple as “stay in your lane,� or, alternatively, “just run downfield and tackle the guy with the ball,� kickoff coverage teams have specific roles, which we'll address here.

Unlike on offense or defense, where everyone can agree what a quarterback is or what a linebacker is, on kickoff coverage, different teams use different terms to describe the players on the field. Special teams coaches like their coverage players to have somewhat reckless attitudes, which is why kickoff coverage players often have positions with names like “wedge buster,� “spear,� “bomber,� and “gunner.� For the purposes of this article we'll mostly identify coverage players using the simple system of R1 through R5 and L1 through L5, with the player closest to the kicker on the kicker's right identified as R1 and the player closest to the sideline on the kicker's left as L5.

Kickoff coverage players have four basic responsibilities:

1. Line up at the 20-yard line and time their run perfectly with the kicker's approach so that they are running at full speed and close to the 30-yard line as possible (without crossing it) just as the kicker's foot touches the ball.

2. Evade the front line. As we wrote about in our previous installment, kickoff return teams have two groups of blockers, the front line and the wedge. Getting past the front line blocks requires some of the same speed rush moves that defensive ends use on offensive tackles. An arm rip or a swim technique can help a coverage player get past the front line blockers without having to slow down.

3. Attack the wedge. Think of all the defensive tackles who have long and productive NFL careers not because they tackle the ball carrier themselves very often but because they can take on blockers to give the linebackers behind them space to make the tackle. Wedge busters are smaller and faster than defensive tackles but have similar roles on the team. They need to make sure the return unit doesn't have a perfectly intact wedge that can escort the return man to the end zone.

4. Make the tackle. No matter how quickly a coverage player can get downfield, if he allows the return man to run past him, he isn't of much use to his team.

Linebackers, defensive backs and wide receivers make up the bulk of the kickoff coverage teams because they have the right combination of speed to get downfield, elusiveness to avoid the blocks, and tackling ability. Among the league's best kickoff coverage players are Atlanta Falcons linebacker Ike Reese, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Sean Morey, and New York Giants receiver David Tyree.

On a typical coverage unit, R5 and L5 are the gunners – their job is to run straight to the ball. Because they're coming from the sidelines and the wedge usually assembles in the middle of the field, they usually don't have to worry about No. 3 of the above responsibilities. When the gunners do their jobs perfectly, they fly past the opposing front line and around the wedge, and then tackle the return man before he can reach the 20-yard line. Gunners line up at one 20-yard line and sprint to the other, a 60-yard run that is about the farthest a football player ever runs in a straight line.

Because R5 and L5, the players closest to the sideline, are running straight to the ball, there's a risk that the returner can run past them and simply turn up the sideline and take it to the house. That's why most teams give R4 and L4 the job of containment along the sidelines. R4 and L4 cross paths with L5 and R5 and make sure that if the return man tries to run up the sideline, they either tackle him or force him to turn back inside, where one of their teammates can make the tackle.

Responsibility No. 3, commonly known as the wedge buster, generally goes to L1 and R1. They're the players closest to the middle of the field, so they've got a straight shot at the opposing wedge. This is the perfect job for a rookie linebacker who has good speed and aggressiveness but hasn't learned the nuances of reading an opposing offense yet, or to a rookie fullback who loves running head first into someone in the opposite color jersey but doesn't fully understand how to identify a blitz. The coaches simply tell L1 and R1 to run full speed into the crowd of opposing blockers to foul up the return game. The wedge busters don't need to make the tackle themselves, but they need to make sure the opposing blockers are otherwise occupied. Many of the best wedge busters take out two blockers at once by throwing themselves at the wedge using a sideways leap, taking out one member of the wedge with the shoulders and another one with the hips.

That leaves L2, L3, R2 and R3 as the players who usually make the tackle. Those four players still have the role of staying in their lanes, but as they're running down the field in their lanes, they need to keep an eye on the ball, to see where the kick has gone and which direction the returner is going. One problem that often comes up, especially for players who try to break into the NFL on kickoff coverage units but didn't play special teams in college, is that they tend to keep their heads down when running. The players on the kickoff coverage unit need to have their heads up and be on the lookout both for the players trying to block them and for where the return man is running.

Although all the players on the kickoff coverage unit have specific assignments, there is one exception: As soon as a kickoff has traveled at least 10 yards, it's a live ball. Every now and then a ball will land where the return team isn't expecting it. If a live ball is on the ground, every player on the coverage unit should try to recover it. That's the only time it's OK for a member of the coverage team to forget his assignment.

Television camera angles make the kickoff coverage unit look like vaguely organized chaos. That's not an entirely inaccurate description of what's happening on the field. But players on the kickoff coverage units spend hours watching film and studying the Xs and Os on the blackboard for a reason. Within that seeming chaos, each of the 10 men on the kickoff coverage unit has a specific job that he needs to execute with every bit the precision of a quarterback's seven-step drop or a safety's blitz. Covering a kickoff doesn't get a player's face on television, but it does help his team win.


29 comments, Last at 27 Jul 2006, 7:49pm

1 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

I may be mistaken but I thought that the NFL put rules in place last year to stop players from leaping into the wedge? Something along the lines of you are not allowed to leave your feet when engaging a blocker on kick-off coverage.

3 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Having watched football (and listened to some very talented play-by-play announcers on the radio) for, oh, 35 years or so, it's rare that I find an article that tells me something completely new to me. Thanks, MDS!

4 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Great series of articles on kickoff returns, I've always wondered what goes into those special teams plays. Thanks!

5 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

This was fun and almost makes up for the fact that it is July. Sniff, sniff, brings back memories of my first KO coverage responsibilities 31 years ago. How many 10 year-olds learn THIS aspect of the game just by watching at home, or even playing in their backyard or on the street? None. It was like learning a new language. And not an easy one at that. Thanks, MDS.

6 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

RE: #1

I looked it up and according to the NFL Rulebook (at least the part they post on thier webpage) states that "Leaping" is a 15 yard penalty. So, I only assume that "leaping" refers to a wedge-buster jumping into the wedge to break down the blocking. I forget if they instituted this rule to off set the effectiveness of Steve Trasker, and Bill Bates, or if it is a more recent addition to the rule book.

Click on my name for the link, go down to the listings for 15 yard penalties, and #16 is leaping.

7 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

I thought the "leaping" penalty was instituted recently only for attempted field goal blocks. I did not believe it applied to this situation.

8 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

#6: Whoah, 15 yards for a delay of game at the start of either half? I find that hilarious. Every other penalty in that section (except for taunting) involves the risk of serious injury to a player.

9 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

i think the "leaping" referred to in the rule book is actually a penalty assessed when a player attempting to block a kick pushes off or is lifted by a teammate in order to jump higher. i can't remember which game, but this was called as a penalty in a playoff game a couple of years ago. of course, i could be totally wrong.

10 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners


I recall "Leaping" being called on field goal and extra point blocks. You can't take a running start to jump and attempt to block a kick.

If I recall correctly, that's the penalty that gave the Bucs the opportunity to go for 2 from the 1 against the Redskins in the game where Alstott made the conversion.

12 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

RE: #10

I know that you are not allowed on extra points and field goals to jump up to block the ball IF you are going to come down upon any other player. But is that really what is being refered to as "Leaping"? I don't know.

But I do recall that gunner/wedge busters are not allowed to jump into the lead blockers of the wedge anymore. I remember Jason Short of the Philadelphia Eagles getting called for it last year, amoungst others.

I keep on this subject because MDS refers to this method as the best way to break up the wedge, and I am quite sure that players are not allowed to wantonly leap into or onto opposing players. Because that was the preferred method of Steve Trasker and Bill Bates (two special teams stars of the mid to late 90s) to break up the wedge and I am sure that by the end of thier careers that this meathod was considered illegal.

13 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Re Leaping:

Yes, Leaping is the penalty for jumping to block a kick and coming down on your own teammates. The most famous example of a "leaping" call came in the Indianapolis vs. Tampa Bay miracle comeback game on MNF in 2003 (the one where Indianapolis came back from 21 points down with 4 minutes to play, but none of the east coast saw it because it was already after midnight). Anyway, after that huge miracle comeback, Indy had forced overtime, and was attempting the game-winning FG. Vanderjagt shanked the ball horribly, but the refs called a "Leaping" penalty on Simeon Rice. The announcers went on for a while about how that happens on every kick in the NFL and never gets called, Vanderjagt got a rekick from a closer distance, which he just baaaaaaaaarely made (grazed the crossbar), and the rest was history. Indy had the miracle comeback, a huge movement to start MNF games earlier was sparked, Vanderjagt went on to have a "perfect" season, public perception became that the Bucs defense wasn't good in "clutch" situations, and the refs went back to not calling "Leaping" penalties on kicks anymore.

14 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Oh, one last thing:

#12 is right, although it's not called "leaping", taking on two blockers is very much illegal. I'm pretty sure that's what Matt Hasselbeck got called for against Pittsburgh in the superbowl last season that prompted one of the announcers to crack that the call was "10 yards for tackling".

15 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Vanderjagt shanked the ball horribly,

I keep saying, this phrase comes up so often, it should just be "Vanderjagt's kick was a vanderjerk..."

It would make me oh so much happier. :)

16 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Having watched several Falcons games last year, I have to dispute the current effectiveness of Ike Reese's special teams coverage. He was not only ineffective lsat year, but was also called for so many holding penalties that the Falcons actually went out mid-season and resigned LB Artie Ulmer (from Valdosta State University!) JUST to play special teams. Ike Reese may have once been one of the elite ST players, but not anymore.

18 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners


I think that probably had more to do with switching special teams coaches. Reese made the Pro Bowl solely on special teams performance just the year before, and losing him really hurt Philly's coverage teams for probably about half the year (and in preseason, they were awful).

There are "systems" in special teams, too.

19 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners


i'm a bit nervous to mention "officiating" and "super bowl" in the same sentence but hasselbeck was penalized (incorrectly) for a low block. it is illegal for a player to block below the waist on an interception, etc. the ref screwed up the call because hasselbeck went low on ike taylor, who had the ball.

20 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

i remember the game perfectly. the colts were down 35-14, against the bucs, and they somehow managed to get it into overtime, and they barely got the ball back from the bucs offense and convered three third downs, and finally had an attempt for a 45 yarder and vandejagt blew it, and then one of the players from the bucs was leaping and it was a penalty for 15 yards, and mike vanderjagt almost blew a 30 yarder had it not been for a hand that reached up and tipped the ball into the endzone, (the kick would have sailed off wide right) and it was an incredible game, with a FANTASTIC FINISH.

21 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Well, apparently not quite *perfectly*. It was a 39 or 40 yard Vanderjerk, the penalty was 10 or 11 yards (half the distance to the goal), and it was a TERRIBLE game, with a truly amazing and bizarre finish.

22 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

The first thing I thought of regarding this 'leaping' business was it sounds like a 'leg whip'. In the days of old
(like, reeeally old), lead blockers would leap up sideways, taking out as many defenders as possible. Talking about any ordinary running play, not just kick returns. This was pretty dangerous and now illegal.

Regardless, I am sure MDS is right. There are probably ways to disguise it, like blocking across one guy (taking out say, one shoulder) and into another guy, for instance.

25 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

#19, as I remember it, the story was that they thought that Hasselback had made contact with a different player on his way to Taylor. Tape later indicated that that was untrue.

Stupid call regardless. Even if blockers trip over people making tackle attempts on the ball carrier, that's their own fault. If they're going to call low blocks, how about starting with cut blocks? Those are far more egregious than anything Hasselback did.

26 Re: Kickoff Coverage II: Spears and Gunners

Yaguar said:"If I recall correctly, that’s the penalty that gave the Bucs the opportunity to go for 2 from the 1 against the Redskins in the game where Alstott made the conversion. "

You do not remember correctly, as it was a (controversial) offsides call on the blocked PAT attempt that gave the Bucs another try from the 1. Also, Alstott didn't make the conversion, though he did get the call.