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Kickoff coverage vital in controlling field position

This is an excerpt from Complete Guide to Special Teams by American Football Coaches Association.

Kickoff coverage is a vital part of a team’s quest to control field position. When you pin an opponent deep in his own territory, you dictate his offensive options. If your opponent is forced to start the possession inside his own 20-yard line, his chances of scoring greatly diminish.

For the coverage team to be successful, each man must carry out his assignment. Successful kickoff coverage is a team effort. Intense effort and desire are also part of a successful kickoff team. In addition to effort and desire, players in this unit all have speed, toughness, agility, and football sense.

Each player must stay in his assigned lane as he locates the ball. They can adjust lanes relative to the ball. Players must not cross the ball. A player who starts right of the ball needs to stay right of the ball, keeping the ball on the proper shoulder. Also, players look to make the big play. A player who finds an opening closes it, squeezing to the ball relative to the player to his inside. Players always tackle the ball carrier’s outside leg.

When approaching a blocker, the player gets by him as quickly as possible. He can shoulder rip by the blocker, swim over him, put a move on him, or use a two-hand shiver. He must set up the blocker and run at the blocker to get him to set his feet. The player uses a two-hand punch and gets back into his lane. Each player needs to exercise common sense.

When taking on a blocker 10 yards or closer to the ball, the player fronts him and squeezes him to the football. He executes the butt and press. A player must not break down unless he is within 10 yards of the ball.

A player facing a wedge must never trade one for one. He needs to take at least two with him. He fills in the proper gap when taking on the wedge and stays high--this is a rule. A player facing a double team holds his lane responsibility. If he gets knocked down, he comes up running.

The Getoff

Hitting the 35-yard line at a full sprint is the key to our coverage. We want our coverage team to have a reputation for team tackling. When they hold the runner up, they try to strip the ball loose. Our goal is to hold the opponent’s return average under 18 yards, tackling the ball carrier inside the 20-yard line. If the kick has a hang time of 4.0 seconds and is caught at the goal line, the coverage unit should be at the 30-yard line when the ball is caught.

When covering kicks, remember that collisions are good when your players are the ones creating them. Teach players to attack potential blockers; they must not wait for blockers to set their feet.

When we use a holder, we kick from the middle to away from the holder’s side because it can be difficult for the holder to fill back in his lane.

To evaluate coverage, we stand at the line of scrimmage when the ball is kicked. At 20 yards we want to see a straight wall of defenders covering at full speed. When the ball is caught, the coverage team should be less than 30 yards from the returner.

Players must always anticipate that the returner will bring the ball out of the end zone. If the returner instead kneels in the end zone for a touchback, we want our coverage team to meet him there. All 11 players must sprint to the end zone.

Personnel Decisions

When choosing players for the kickoff coverage team, we look for specific body types.

The #1 position player must be able to run. He will be an aggressive safety. A defensive back or wide receiver is best suited to this position. He doesn’t have to be huge, but he must be a sound tackler.

The #2 position player must be able to run well enough to squeeze blocks and be aggressive enough to take on kick-out blocks. A strong safety or big, physical wide receiver is ideal for this position.

The #3 position player must be big enough to take on double teams and wedge blocks. Speed is a factor if the return is away. A defensive back, fast linebacker, or fullback is best suited to this position.

The #4 and #5 position players must have good bulk and strength. They are closest to the kicker and the point of attack, so they must be stout enough to take on blocks and not get knocked out of their lanes. They see a lot of wedge blocking schemes. Linebackers and tight ends are best at the #4 and #5 positions.

The kicker needs to approach the ball consistently so that the coverage team can time their approach for the getoff. We like for the kicker to be within 9 yards of the ball, but that can be adjusted. If the kick is not a touchback, we have a goal of a 4.0 hang time to the goal line. The shorter the kick, the more hang time the ball must have.

Phases of Kickoff Coverage

Proper kickoff coverage begins with the getoff and ends with preventing a long return.

For the getoff, each player must key into the kicker’s approach and match his approach to the kicker’s tempo. By the time he hits the line of scrimmage, he should be at a full sprint. This is called the all-out zone. Remind players not to be offside. If the men can coordinate their getoff, they will avoid vertical gaps in the coverage.

Lane distribution is the next part of kickoff coverage. The horizontal gaps between players must be 5 to 6 yards wide. These gaps must remain constant. Players that are too far apart or too close together create seams that are too big to be filled. If a player gets knocked out of his lane while avoiding a block, he must work hard to get back into his lane. Remind players to never follow a teammate down the field. The man in the trail position must adjust to fill in the void. Any player who gets knocked down must get up and fill in the void. Players must never stay on the ground.

Each player needs to be aware of the return scheme. Each position is assigned an awareness key before the snap. The drops of the front blockers will tell a lot about the return scheme. Players must not allow the front blockers to force them to break down too soon. If the blockers on the kicking team attempt to block early, players must avoid the block and get back into their lanes. This is called the avoid zone.

A player within 10 to 15 yards of the returner begins to break down. He attacks the block, being careful not to pick an edge. He stays square and reestablishes the line of scrimmage. This is called the attack zone.

If the front blockers on the kicking team do not attempt to block, the player swivels his head to watch out for kick-out or kick-in blocks. He also needs to look for a deep wedge.

Remind players to never give up one for one--always force double teams. A double team will free up another coverage man.

Players should squeeze all returns. As blockers go away, players begin to restrict their lanes. They must not restrict too early or they will lose the proper spacing with the other coverage men. Reduce the field for the return as much as possible, but never give up lane integrity to do so.

Remind players to always keep the ball inside. They need to keep proper leverage on the ball at all times. This means keeping the ball inside and in front. Players should always take on blocks with the inside arm and keep the outside arm free.

Learn more about Complete Guide to Special Teams.

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