Special Teams is an area that not many fans are interested in talking about. It’s not discussed much from week to week during the season, or really the offseason for that matter. There is not much on special teams that catches a fans eye, other than the occasional big return on kickoff return and punt return. This time of the year seems to be one of the slowest points in the NFL offseason so I thought this would be the perfect time to discuss the Packers kickoff and talk a little on what I think special teams coordinator Ron Zook will do with the Packers this year.
One thing I will mention before we get down to the Xs and Os is that I won’t talk much about personnel. The thing about the kickoff team is that each position is very interchangeable, with the exception of the kicker. A lot of the special teams players are guys who are fighting to make the roster and who made an extra effort during camp that caught the coaches eye. Chances are if a player doesn’t think he’ll make the cut at his position then there could be a spot on any special teams unit with his name on it. If you are attending Packers training camp this year then you will see a lot of these drills and a lot of guys who you probably won’t recognize. These players have always impressed me because they seem to be some of the hardest working players on the team. You know they don’t take plays off because they are fighting for a spot on the team. With that said, lets dive in to it.
Basics of the Kickoff Team
With the new rule changes to the kickoff this season it will be interesting to see what Ron Zook does differently. In one of his press conferences he stated that he thinks there could be a possibility of more returns this year, due to the fact that players on the kickoff team cannot get a running start before the ball is kicked. I tend to agree with him, but we’ll see what happens.
There is a lot that goes in to the kickoff team. Like both offense and defense, each player is responsible for their assignment and each has a specific job to do. Believe it or not, some fans think that the players run downfield 100 mph towards the ball. That’s not the case. Playing on the kickoff team is just another version of playing defense. When diagramming the kickoff team on paper I label the player to the left of the kicker L1 and the player to the right of the kicker R1. There are 5 players on each side of the kicker so if a player is to the right of him they would be labeled R1, R2, R3, R4, and R5. The same is done with the left side. Some people do it the opposite way with the R1 player on the outside but it doesn’t really matter as long as you know what their job is. Here are some of the responsibilities of those players:
- R1 /L1, R2/L2 players are ‘wedge busters’. They are responsible for breaking up any blocking that may be setting up from the up backs.
- R3/L3, players aim points are slightly inside the numbers. They act much like a wedge buster would only they condense the return a little once the ball is fielded.
- R4/L4 players aim points are outside of the numbers. Their angles are much wider and they must maintain their position and not get too close to the R3/L3 players. It’s all about spacing.
- R5/L5 players are the contain players. They are responsible for turning the play back inside. The biggest key for them is that nothing gets outside of them. If it does it could mean 6 points for the return team.
- The kicker is an obvious one, but after the ball is kicked he acts as a safety. The kicker is the last line of defense if the return man beats the rest of the kickoff team.
There are 3 critical zones that a player on the kickoff team must know. These are the speed zone, avoid zone, and contact zone. Here’s a little bit about them.
- Speed zone – A 20 yard zone after the kickoff where the player reaches full speed and gets his eyes downfield to the landmark/aim point.
- Avoid zone – The point 10-15 yards after the speed zone where the player is avoiding contact at all costs. The player doesn’t want anything in the way that could slow him down.
- Contact zone – The point where the player makes contact, sheds the block and finds the ball. If it is the #3 and 4 players this is the point where they start to squeeze it down and condense the return man.
Points of Emphasis
One of the biggest, if not the biggest, point of emphasis on the kickoff team is to maintain proper spacing. This can’t be stressed enough. If players get to close to one another it could make them easily blocked and take them out of the play. If gaps are opened up a good return man will see daylight and hit it.
Here is one instance of that happening. Notice also how the contain player jumps inside of his block and takes himself out of the play. Had he stayed outside this could have been forced to the R4 player. It’s tough to not want to turn and run towards the ball but these rules and responsibilities are put in place for good reason.
If a player on the kickoff team sees himself getting squared up and blocked then the best thing to do is to take the blocker head on, rip and shed to the outside. This allows him to be able to stay in his lane and not give up a hole to the return man.
The last thing is the effort. I mentioned this earlier but it is so important. The kickoff is an all out sprint. Any player caught loafing can expect a chewing by Zook. As I said earlier, these players are easily interchangeable and that is a big motivating factor in being a part of the kickoff unit.
With training camp right around the corner I hope this gave you a little insight on how the kickoff unit operates. I didn’t cover onside kicks or squib kicks because that could almost be another article by itself. A good kickoff team can make all the difference in a game. Big returns can mean good starting field position for the opponent and a short field for the defense to defend. It all starts with the kickoff team.
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