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Hitting All the Return Keys

October 12, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

The ball is in the air and you know there are at least 10 attacking players from the opposing team looking to make that special hit on you.

It would be one thing if the ball came directly to you, but that rarely happens, especially when the rival coach doesn't want your returns to beat his team. So you track down the kick aimed away from you and while you run to catch it, you get a quick read on which defender will try to knock your head off first.

Thump! Suddenly, the ball is in your hands and you start to run. Make one tackler miss. Then another. Avoid your teammates. Fake out the kicker and then you're gone. Touchdown.

If it were only that easy. Returning a kick for a touchdown in the NFL the way Kansas City's Dante Hall does it is a rarity.

Last season, there were 3,356 punts and kickoffs in the league with only 39 returned for scores. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been in the NFL for 28 seasons and never have returned a kickoff for a score.

Kick returning all starts with the returner. If he doesn't have heart and is afraid to get hit, he's not the right man for the job.

The New York Giants' Brian Mitchell has been a model return man for 14 seasons. He consistently catches the ball and gets positive yards on his returns. That's why he's the NFL's all-time leader in kicks returned for touchdowns with 13.

Returning kickoffs for touchdowns has always been slightly more difficult than punts. Although returners usually start off with an open field after catching the ball, kickoffs are trickier to break because they are more predictable plays. Teams are able to do a better job directing kicks to certain areas of the field and surrounding returners with would-be tacklers.

To have a strong kickoff return unit, you need mobile blockers up front. They have to be able to run backward, locate their assignment and time their blocks to coincide with the return man's running lane.

The next set of blockers forms the wedge. It usually helps to have fullbacks and tight ends because they know how to block in space. They create their own version of a pulling offensive line and their job is to hit anyone in the way, but they have to time their hits. If the wedge blocks too soon, that usually leaves too big a gap between them and the returner.

A kickoff returner's best friend is the personal protector. He's the player who lines up deep with the returner but runs in front and throws what is hoped to be the key block.

The personal protector must understand that his main job is to block and not return kicks. Poor kickoff return units usually have a personal protector who thinks that he has the ball and often runs past the first defender. That's just like an offensive lineman who doesn't pick up a blitz.

But even if the right players are in place, a good kickoff return unit needs good schemes. The Chiefs always have sound strategies with their returns, and special team coach Frank Gansz Jr. threw Denver off last week with a reverse on the Broncos' first kickoff.

While teams can set up left, right and middle returns on kickoffs because of easier kicks, that's not the case with punt returns. Most touchdowns scored off punts are usually the result of a great play made by the returner.

In today's NFL, punters are able to direct kicks, but they also kick farther. This extra yardage often creates enough room for a returner to juke one or two defenders and then use his quickness.

The first players a punt returner usually faces are headhunters, who line up on the outside for the punting team. If not blocked, a headhunter is the most dangerous defender because he's usually running at full speed and the punt returner is essentially stationary before he catches the ball.

Because punts are more spontaneous plays, returners with the ability to make tacklers miss are more effective than they are on kickoff returns. A punt returner can't rely as much on teammates because it is tougher for them to get in front of defenders to make legal blocks.

But even when everything seems to work and a kick is returned for a touchdown, there's always the threat of a penalty wiping the play away. This happens so often because teams rarely practice full-contact kick returns during the week. Games are the only time return units face real hitting, and that often leads to mistakes.

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