20: Can special teams still dominate?

For the NFL Competition Committee it was an issue of safety, as they successfully lobbied NFL owners to pass three proposals affecting special teams play. For special teams coordinators like Bobby April the rule changes mean adjustments leading up to and probably during the 2009 season. The teams that adapt the quickest stand a good chance of taking a step closer to matching the effectiveness of April's number one ranked unit of a year ago.

For April and his specialists they're the hunted and the game is different. Can they still dominate the way they have the past five seasons?

The answer to that question is probably.

Taking a closer look at the first rule change, the elimination of the wedge, there's no question it will impact any and all NFL kick return units. A maximum of just two players will be allowed to "link up" to block directly in front of the kick returner. If there are more than two return team members lined up shoulder to shoulder that lead the blocking it will be a 15-yard penalty at the spot of the wedge.

Buffalo led the league in average drive start in 2008 thanks to their kick return unit. Fortunately, the effect of the rule change won't be as dramatic for Buffalo as it will be for some other clubs.

"For us we've run a three-man wedge," said April. "There are some teams that run four-man wedges. So those teams will be most affected. It's very similar to what we're doing it's just a reduction. Wherever we took that guy out we now have to replace him in the geometry and mathematics of the blocking scheme."

And with one of the best up and coming return men in the league in Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo doesn't figure to struggle much despite the new rule.

The second change is an onsides kick rule in which players on the kickoff team have to spread across the width of the field more evenly.

At least four players must be lined up on either side of the kicker and at least three players must be lined up outside the hash mark on their half of the field, including one that has to line up outside the numbers.

April is convinced that Buffalo's "avalanche" onsides kick play is the sole reason for the rule change. The Bills' kickoff team on occasion would line up with five players on either side of Rian Lindell, with all of them tightly packed between the hashes. Lindell would quickly pooch the ball forward along the ground the required 10 yards and all 10 players plus Lindell would bear down on the loose ball like an avalanche for the Bills.

The first time they made use of it was in 2007 in a home game against the Jets and they successfully recovered the kickoff in a 17-14 victory.

"That's what they're trying to take away, the onsides formation that we did," said April. "That's the thing they're saying you can't do at all. That play that we did against the Jets two years ago and we've done since, that's what they're taking out.

"We did it more than anybody and I had never seen it before anywhere else. Since we did it a lot of people went to it. They've now outlawed that."

Ultimately, April isn't too bothered by the new rule having only employed that onsides formation for the last two seasons.

"It's just a reduction in the number of players and you have to put your guys in different spots and make different blocking assignments," he said.

The last rule change is the one with which April takes the most issue. It's the 15-yard penalty that will be assessed if a punt return team member makes a blind side block to the head of a defender using his helmet, forearm or shoulder.

In essence it's outlawing the peel back block when a cover man focused on the returner never sees a blocker coming from a different direction and gets laid out.

"That one is the biggest of all the changes," said April. "So many times on the punt return the path of the pursuer changes dramatically and how they're going to call it is a mystery to me."

And April's point is a good one. The biggest factor affecting whether the Bills will still be able to dominate on special teams may not be affected so much by the rule changes, but rather how those rule changes are officiated.

"Any time you try to legislate hitting out of the game you're going to run into problems because the essence of the game is hitting and contact," said April. "So when you legislate the essence of the game out of the game there is going to be a lot of compromising. There is going to have to be a lot of change involved."

April preaches aggressiveness, intensity and his trademark phrase to his players is 'push the envelope.' Special teamers by nature need to have an edge to be at their best. It will be hard for players to avoid thinking too much about whether the opportunity to make a big play in coverage could result in a penalty against his team.

"It's going to be frustrating for coaches and players because they'll be doing things that just come naturally and they'll feel like they're getting victimized," said April. "And the officials are going to have a tougher time legislating it because it's all judgment and those plays happen in an instant."
Fortunately for the Bills they have the following factors in their favor.

They have an extra preseason game this summer in which to prepare and experience the way in which the new rules are going to be interpreted by NFL officials.

The number one unit from last year has the majority of its personnel returning including both primary return men, their kicker and punter and three of their top four special teams tacklers. With the additions of promising prospects like Alvin Bowen, Nic Harris and Ellis Lankster they won't be short on talent.

And with arguably the most innovative special teams mind in the game in April, Buffalo figures to be have the necessary adjustments in place sooner rather than later to remain at or near the top of the league when it comes to performance.

"I'm going to be coaching both sides of it with these changes," said April. "We just have to do whatever we can to give our team the greatest probability for success."

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