Antonio Brown has been the star of the preseason, and the second-year wide receiver should get plenty of opportunities Thursday when the Steelers host the Philadelphia Eagles.
The one area in which Brown may not flash much in the Steelers' first game at Heinz Field since January is kickoff returns. The Steelers did not have one return last Friday in their preseason opener — and their first game since kickoffs were moved from the 30- to 35-yard line.
The rule change has altered the dynamic of kick returns — the percentage of touchbacks will increase significantly — and the compromise the NFL has tried to forge between one of the most exciting plays in football and player safety is causing teams to adjust.
Brown, for example, has been green-lighted to return all kickoffs provided he catches them 5 yards or less into the end zone and is moving forward when he fields them.
"I'd rather have the usual way," said Brown, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Steelers' second game of the 2010 season. "It guaranteed me a return every time, but I think it's safer for the players that are being blocked. There will be less injuries and less concussions because that's a long sprint and guys hitting each other."
The rule change, approved by owners, 26-6, in March following a recommendation by the NFL's competition committee, limits players on the kickoff coverage team to a 5-yard running start. Plus, it allows only a two-man wedge on returns.
It has generated the inevitable grousing from pre-eminent return men and teams that lost an advantage when the NFL moved kickoffs to where they had been prior to 1994.
New England coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week that the NFL is trying to eliminate kickoffs from the game — a claim that the league quickly denied.
The NFL appears to be aiming for a cutback on kickoffs, from the 80s percent range to somewhere in the 60s, as part of its player safety initiative.
In the first week of preseason play, according to the NFL, 68.1 percent of kickoffs were returned. In 2010, 81.5 percent of kickoffs were returned in the first slate of preseason games.
"I'm going to support the NFL and its effort to minimize the play," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Obviously it's a dangerous play."
The rule change has teams pondering different strategies, and it could affect the makeup of 53-man rosters.
The Steelers may be less inclined to keep a player based on his kick coverage skills, especially if they are content to let Shaun Suisham boom kickoffs deep into the end zone.
"To me, if you can put your defense on the field at the 20-yard line, put them on the 20," special teams coordinator Al Everest said. "You wouldn't start getting fancy, pop it up to the 10 and a guy returns and hits a seam goes back for a touchdown when you could have had it deep at the 20. I don't see the trade off."
Everest said the Steelers will take a wait-and-see approach with the new rule. Brown has to hope last Friday's game isn't a preview. The Steelers started on the 20-yard line after all four times the Washington Redskins kicked off.
"I don't hate it, but it's kind of taking a fun part out of the game," Brown said of the new rules. "But it's also an opportunity to make (returns) even longer, just being able to get past that first wave of guys when they come down."
first they got rid of the wedgebuster (which was awesome) and now kick returners...bleh
I hate this rule, imagine how guys like Josh Cribbs feel. He makes his living returning kicks, and punts too. Talk about hampering a big play part of the offense. I mean seriously, this is where the NFL took an epic blunder to monumental proportions.
Unless you are seriously kicking into a hurricane force wind, or your name is Jeff Reed, anybody can kick it into the endzone. It will become a pointless play over time if they don't change it back.
Did anyone catch the falcons game last week? The special teams coach made sure the kicker would kick it to the corner of the field, right in front of the endzone. This made it possible for a kick return, plus the coverage team kept the dolphins in the 20 on most of the kick offs.
But regardless, every kickoff was useless in the Steelers game today. All it did was make players run down the field for no reason.
Not only Cribbs but Devin Hester....My buddy is a diehard Bears fan and he always starts a debate about Devin Hester and his case for the Hall of Fame.....Well no more kick-offs will take dynamic kick returners like Hester out of the game...Of course there is still returns on punts......I bet the NFL thinks about changing the rule again...If the fans complain enough and demand to have the kick off to be part of the game again then the NFL will listen.......
I agree that they wil change it next year.
I'm not complaining because it's actually a good rule for us. We never had a good return team and our kicker and coverage team just flat out sucked in the past. The value with our defense starting teams back on the 20, far out weighs our offense starting on the 20 instead of the 22 or 23 where they normally did in the past. If not on the 10 because of a penalty.
"When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself."
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