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Fipp: Lions experimenting with strategies for new kickoff rule

The kickoff return is back in the NFL – though it looks very different – and Detroit Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said the team is still very much in the exploratory phase of how they want to implement the play on both sides.

"There's a lot of things that are new. This time of year we're trying to experiment as much as we can, obviously," Fipp said. "And putting our guys in a bunch of different situations, both in schemes, positionally on the field, alignments, how we're trying to play the play, mindset, mentality of it.

"Kind of all of the above and just trying to figure out a lot of things. Every time we do a drill, we do it a little bit differently and with different guys in different places."

Detroit is still in the data collection and experiment phase of how they want to attack the kickoff play both in coverage and on returns.

Just a reminder, here are the key elements of the new rule:

  • All players on the coverage team except the kicker must be lined up at the opponent's 40-yard line.
  • At least nine players on returning team must be lined up between their own 30 and 35-yard line with seven players having at least one foot on the 35-yard line.
  • No player besides the kicker and returners can move until the ball is caught or hits the ground.
  • A football that reaches the end zone before hitting the ground results in the ball being placed at the 30-yard line.

Fipp describes himself as a traditionalist when it comes to special teams but he is a huge fan of the way the league has put the play back in the game with player safety in mind.

The league wants to up scoring after the a third straight season of scoring decline, and field position is directly correlated to scoring in the NFL. Nearly 80 percent of all kickoffs last season resulted in a touchback.

"I'm thrilled to death, I'll say that for sure," Fipp said of the play being back in the game. "I think it's going to be great. Great for the game, great for players. I think one thing I've already noticed, players coming into my office and they're excited, they're like, 'Hey, tell me about the rule.' And it's some of the down-the-line players that it's going to matter to. I think it gives those guys more importance, the guys who can contribute on special teams."

It will be interesting to see how teams use their personnel on the play. There's more value in suddenness and short-area quickness as opposed to long speed with no 40-yard run up to it anymore. It's more trying to beat the player across from you in a one-on-one play in a five-yard space. Cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers who can run, running backs and receivers all seem to be in play.

"The truth is if you just took our kickoff from a year ago and you're watching on film and you hit start and the ball's kicked and the cover team starts running down the field, if you pause the film, it's pretty close to (where players will be under the new rule)," Fipp said. "So, what the league's done in essence to a large degree is just taken out the 40-yard free run that you used to have."

Lions head coach Dan Campbell significantly values special teams. I expect he'll dedicate time and resources trying to turn the play into an advantage for his football team. Fipp said he thinks the changes will result in an uptick in scoring.

"What I've seen so far is it's a volatile play," he said. "There can be some explosive plays, really for the kickoff return team more so than the coverage team. As a coverage group you only have 20 yards, 25 yards to stop the guy, but the return team's got 75 yards to go the other way, so there's more opportunity for the return team I think to have more explosive plays.

"I think those things will show up. They've spread the field with our alignment so that it's hard to get an overloaded number of players at the point of attack. If you kick the ball away in the left corner, there's a couple of guys out there that are 50 yards away from the ball laterally and it just takes too long to get over the top of the ball so some of those guys can't show up. By the time the returner goes 35 yards, they have to go 50. You can't get there unless you're just faster."

The new rule is also going to give some players at the bottom of the roster an opportunity to show value in the special teams portion of the game. Lions general manager Brad Holmes has been known to stack the bottom of the roster with players who excel in that part of the game.

"Not that we were one of them, but I think that a handful of teams around the league started to devalue the back end of the roster just a little bit there and some of these guys' skill sets on special teams and the importance of it, and I think that's going to come back into play a little bit more here," Fipp said.

"So, I really like it. I like what the league's done. I know everybody's worked really hard to try to make sure that it goes well, and we'll see. There's a lot everybody's got to learn, but definitely exciting."

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