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Football notes

Rule has special significance

NFL puts a block on wedge in returns

By Mike Reiss
March 29, 2009
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The lights in the offices of special teams coaches across the NFL will be on a bit later at night than usual this offseason, because their jobs just became much more challenging.

When owners voted last week to eliminate a wedge on kickoff returns that includes more than two players, citing safety concerns, some called it a minor alteration. But it's far from that to special teams coaches, who now are forced to rewrite significant portions of their playbooks because of how prominent the wedge had become.

The wedge is a human wall, often including 300-pound linemen who line up closest to the returner and whose job it is to take on coverage players who have built up great velocity from surging down the field. They usually absorb the most violent hits on each return, and this will limit those collisions.

Teams like the Redskins and Giants figure to be most affected, as they regularly run powerful four-man wedges. A couple of teams occasionally run a five-man wedge.

"Most everybody runs a three or a four, and has for years," said Bills special teams coach Bobby April, whose units annually rank near the top of the NFL. "I told my wife, with these rules I just added a lot more work hours because we run that and we've run that for a long time and been successful with it. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of ingenuity to come up with a different offense, because basically a kickoff return is an offensive play.

"This might be too dramatic, but if we ran the wishbone and all of a sudden they said, 'You can't run the wishbone anymore,' that offensive staff is going to have to come up with something. We're on a smaller scale because certainly there are less kickoff returns, but all of us are going to have to come up with something different, because across the board almost everybody is affected by this."

First-year Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien concurred. Once he learns more about how officials plan to interpret all aspects of the rule, he'll head back to the drawing board.

"The wedge has been around as long as I can remember, where you utilized it or had to deal with it one way or another, so it's going to force everybody now to re-create their return schemes and have a different look on how to defend those returns," O'Brien said.

In search of improvements for the Cardinals' return game in 2009, special teams coach Kevin Spencer recently put together footage of the four-man wedges of the Redskins and Giants. Spencer had planned to adopt more of that style, but he's since changed course.

"I wanted to study it and was thinking that was maybe a way I should go from a teaching and repetition standpoint. Now I'll have to go look at other things," Spencer said. "At least we're not finding out in June and scrambling to get your playbook ready for July, when you have to teach the guys. Coaches are paid to coach and be creative, so we're doing what we're paid to do."

Although they will be breaking from tradition, April, O'Brien, and Spencer favor the change if it means player safety will be enhanced.

While some teams might still have a couple of bigger linemen leading the returner as part of a two-man wedge, all three coaches anticipate that kickoff return teams will now feature more players with a different body type. Thus, there is likely to be a trickle-down effect in how head coaches determine their 45-man game-day rosters - a backup lineman who might be in the wedge could turn out to be a luxury that is no longer feasible.

"Now you could be eliminating them," O'Brien said. "You could find a lot more smaller athletes on the field both ways because they're one-on-one and you have to be able to play in space. I think it will create a little more excitement that way in terms of the matchups we have on the field."

More teams figure to adopt what is often referred to as a "match" or "man" return, which April describes as "when you literally match up 10 against 10 and guys single block."

Former Patriots special teams coach Brad Seely was considered among his colleagues to be a master of coaching the "match" return when he was with the Panthers in the 1990s and had explosive returner Michael Bates. Seely, who joined the Browns this year, became more of a wedge coach in recent years in New England.

"But you might see that kind of matchup scheme come back into vogue," Spencer said. "You don't ever really get rid of stuff, it just sort of comes and goes, and that might be something you see come back. It will depend on each coach's philosophy and what type of personnel you have."

The change might appear subtle to the casual fan - and perhaps not noticed - but it's already a big topic among special teams coaches.

"I don't think the fans will be shortchanged, I think you'll still see some big returns," April said. "It's going to take some ingenuity and creativity to come up with different things for teams who strictly run that style of [wedge] attack, but I don't think it will take away from the excellence or the beauty of the kicking game."

Plan is a good sign for Lions

The Lions apparently are still deciding whom to select with the No. 1 overall pick in next month's draft, but they're taking a smart course of action with one important aspect of the process.

First-year coach Jim Schwartz indicated at last week's owners' meetings that the Lions plan to have a finalized contract - or at least an agreement in principle - in place with whomever they select.

Only the team with the top overall pick can negotiate with prospects before the draft.

While the overwhelming cost of the top pick now makes it more of a burden than a reward, Schwartz realizes that leverage is important for the Lions to seize, whether they're picking Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith, Virginia offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, or someone else.

Sounds simple, right?

Well, the Raiders botched that aspect of holding the No. 1 pick two years ago, which contributed to JaMarcus Russell's holdout.

"We saw how much that set back [Russell] a couple years ago," Schwartz said. "That's a tool we have in drafting No. 1. We need to take advantage of every advantage that we have."

Run-of-the-hill offseason for 49ers

The 49ers, coming off a 7-9 season, know they have an uphill climb this season. In more ways than one.

Among the changes Mike Singletary has made in his first year as permanent head coach is the creation of a steep hill adjacent from the team's practice field. Singletary plans to have his players work out on the hill when it's completed in a few weeks.

Singletary explained that he used to train on a hill in Houston with other NFL players such as Charlie Joiner, Darrell Green, and Earl Campbell.

"I was very fortunate to be part of that group," Singletary said. "It was a tough workout. All of those guys that worked out on that hill had a long career."

Singletary calls the hill "Pain."

What was before a small slope is now a hill with 2,500 tons of dirt. From top to bottom is 45-50 feet.

"To me, the hill has a mystery about it," Singletary said. "It's tough to really get the work you get on the hill anywhere else because of the endurance, the stamina, what it does for your hamstrings, your quads. It's tough to find anywhere else. Whether you go up forward, backward, sideways, you get a diverse kind of workout rather than just on the grass on a flat surface."

Players naturally had questions when they arrived at the practice field and saw the hill in the works.

"They're not excited about it," Singletary said. "They won't like it, but it'll be good for them."

Etc.

Feeling a draft
Five thoughts while moving from the free agent frenzy to the hype of the draft: 1. The Lions are scheduled to privately work out Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford Tuesday. The team's plans with the top pick could come into sharper focus after the workout; 2. Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt has been on the money with his first-round picks since assuming his position in 2007. Both safety Michael Griffin (2007) and running back Chris Johnson (2008) already have Pro Bowl berths on their résumés and are impact players. The Titans pick 30th this year; 3. Speaking of the Titans, while much of the attention has focused on the loss of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in free agency, don't forget that they return 10 of 11 starters on defense; 4. Boston College defensive tackle Ron Brace has predraft visits scheduled with the Saints and Buccaneers, according to his agents, Andy Simms and Nate Haber; 5. The Chiefs are experimenting with 2008 first-round pick (No. 5 overall) Glenn Dorsey at nose tackle in their 3-4 scheme, but some question if Dorsey has the girth to hold up exclusively in that role. Dorsey was more of a penetrator at Louisiana State.

Sincerest form of flattery
Interesting link made by Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, saying he plans to utilize free agent acquisition J.J. Arrington the same way he did Kevin Faulk in New England. McDaniels liked that Arrington was the only running back who played for Arizona in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, which he said was telling.

Thrown for a loss
When Miami traded center Samson Satele to the Raiders last week, it closed the book on one of the worst trades in recent Dolphins history. Satele was picked with the second-round selection the Dolphins acquired from the Patriots for receiver Wes Welker in 2007. The Dolphins also acquired a seventh-round pick, but the player they selected (linebacker Abraham Wright) is no longer on the roster. For those keeping score, the Dolphins allowed their division rival to acquire a dangerous slot receiver and two years later have little to show for it. That's one of the main reasons Bill Parcells and Co. were brought in to clean up the mess in Miami.

No takers
It's been a humbling trip into free agency for former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy, who has yet to land with a new club and is probably at the stage where he'll be playing for veteran minimum money. The Falcons decided not to re-sign the 35-year-old Milloy after three seasons, and will instead see if 2008 third-round draft choice Thomas DeCloud can seize the job. If DeCloud falters, one down-the-road option the Falcons might consider is Rodney Harrison, who might be enticed by playing in the city in which he lives year round.

'Wild' times
The "Wildcat" package popularized by the Dolphins isn't a one-year trend. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last week that his team will install its own Wildcat package, as he likes the idea of having a third quarterback who isn't solely a developmental prospect. Jones said third-year receiver Isaiah Stanback is one possibility to fill the role. In the draft, West Virginia quarterback Pat White and Rice tight end James Casey are possibilities for teams thinking along the same lines.

East influence
With McDaniels taking over in Denver, and Scott Pioli in his first season as Chiefs general manager, Chargers coach Norv Turner is expecting a Patriots-like feel in the AFC West. That means Turner is expecting both teams to feature spread passing attacks, so the Chargers will be putting added importance on coverage.

Ball's game
Record-setting former University of New Hampshire receiver David Ball, who was cut by the Jets at the end of training camp last summer and was out of the NFL in 2008, is continuing his career in the Canadian Football League. After hooking on with the Montreal Alouettes late last season, Ball is now under a one-year contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, although he's not giving up hope of returning to the NFL in 2010. The Vermont-born Ball has supplemented his football career by starting his own company - D.R.E.A.M. Sports Productions - and he serves as a motivational speaker in the Northeast.

Mr. Popularity
University of Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin, who led the Big East with 11 sacks last season and is projected to be a late-first-to-second-round selection, has been a man in demand. According to his agent, Barwin has had private workouts with seven teams. In addition, Barwin previously visited the Bills' facility, and has predraft visits with New England (tomorrow), Kansas City, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and St. Louis. The late action is an indication that teams want more information on Barwin, likely because of some of his impressive testing.

Did you know?
As of Friday, the Super Bowl champion Steelers had not signed an unrestricted free agent from another team. The Broncos had signed a league-high 13.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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