Moving back kickoffs not slowing big returns

The NFL moved kickoffs up five yards this season as part of the league's 2011 rules changes, but then look what has happened so far on opening weekend: Three kickoffs have already been returned for touchdowns. "You're taking a chance every time you step out there," 49ers returner Ted Ginn Jr. said. "But with the special teams that we have, there's always a guarantee that we can pop one."

Ginn popped two touchdown returns in San Francisco's season opener Sunday against Seattle, part of seven touchdown returns in the first 14 games of the season, leading some to suggest that the lack of offseason workouts and a truncated period to prepare for the season has helped combat the new rules designed to limit the return game, leading to a slew of big returns.

One of the overriding themes for the opening weekend of play was the discussion of how much effect the new rule which moved the kickoff back up to the 35-yard line would have on the game.

It definitely created an impact on special teams and field position, with a whopping 86.7 percent of the 142 kickoffs reaching the end zone, and nearly half of them (47.8 percent) leading to touchbacks.

But with the two Monday night games still to be played, there were already three kickoff returns for touchdowns. And four punt return scores as well.

Ginn had two of them, becoming the first player in NFL history to return both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns in a season opener.

Ginn's 102- yard kickoff return and 55-yard punt return came within a 59-second span in the fourth quarter and were the big plays that sealed San Francisco's 33-17 victory over the defending NFC West champion Seahawks.

Afterward, Ginn was asked if his big returns were an answer that special teams in the NFL are still alive after many said they wouldn't be as big a part of the game any longer because of the rules changes.

"Punt return-wise, it's still going to be what it is," Ginn responded. "But as far as kickoff return, you're taking a chance every time you step out there. Being five or six yards deep in the end zone, sometimes you don't make it to the 20 like you want to, sometimes you might start at the 10 or 15. Sometimes it hurts your offense. But with the special teams that we have here, there's always a guarantee that we can pop one."

One conclusion of some special teams coaches, to whom The Sports Xchange spoke on Sunday night and Monday morning: The competition committee can create all kinds of rules to alter the game – in this case, with the switches ostensibly aimed at engendering a safer environment on kickoffs – but better tackling and improved special teams play early in the season can't necessarily be legislated.

"In just about any season," said one veteran NFC special teams coach, "you hold your breath a little bit (on runbacks), because you have a lot of turnover (on special teams), and you know you're going to be a little ragged out of the gate until those guys get settled in. This year, with no minicamps or OTAs to work on some of the finer points, it was probably worse."

Even with the new kickoff rule, which, in theory, should lead to fewer returns?

Said another special teams coach: "Yeah, just as much, probably."

Sloppy tackling, even from scrimmage, has been a deficiency in the game for a number of years now. Form tackling, with players breaking down into classic hitting position and then wrapping securely, seems to be a vanishing art.

The shortcomings are more magnified on special teams, where the field is more spread, and the missed tackles are more obvious. Compounding the problem this season was the lack of work in the spring, a compacted training camp schedule that likely meant less work for special teams units, less live hitting and an unexpectedly large rookie class.

The 49ers' specialty units seems to be affected by those factors when they came together for the first time under Seely in July.

With several rookies and young veterans new to the team being added to the mix, San Francisco's special teams performed poorly during the exhibition season.

But it all came together for the 49ers on opening day, when they also a standout performance from five-time Pro Bowl kicker David Akers – who led all kickers on opening weekend with 15 points in his 49ers de but – and a career day from two-time Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee.

Even speaking not for attribution, specials teams coaches were reluctant to concede that their units were provided less practice time in camps this year. But with the compressed preparation period, it's likely some elements got short shrift, and the kicking game may have been among them.

Also, the conventional wisdom during the lockout was that fewer rookies, particularly undrafted players, would earn roster spots. But that wasn't the case and, as usual, many of those rookies found homes on special teams coverage units.

The notion that many franchises would retain veteran players in the 4-6 year range – veterans who were not starters but who filled out special teams units and didn't need acclimation to the kicking game – didn't really bear fruition.

The upshot was that some special teams coaches suffered the same kinds of uneven results they have in most early-season games, even with the new kickoff rule.

Beyond the combined seven kickoff and punt returns for scores, there was also a blocked punt for a touchdown.

In virtually any season, it takes a few weeks for the special teams units to jibe. The weekend was no different. Couple the newness of the units with the shoddy tackling that has become so prevalent in the league – and which will continue to be a problem with the new CBA rules governing contact – and it helped to counter, to some degree, the new kickoff rules.

One special teams coach pointed out that, while he and his colleagues around the NFL would "love to take credit" for doodling up the perfect return blocking scheme, most touchdowns on kickoff and punt runbacks generally include at least one missed tackle or a cover player being badly out of position.

That was the case on each of the seven returns for touchdowns in the first 14 games.

Fueled by the three runbacks for touchdowns, kickoffs were returned for an average of 27.7 yards in the first 14 games, a pretty healthy mark. Again, those numbers are no doubt skewed, and bloated by the touchdown runbacks of Ginn, Randall Cobb and Percy Harvin, but they might provide return men some solace for the first few weeks of the season, until coverage units become more cohesive.

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