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Rule change will force Chargers to adjust, not overhaul

Posted May 11, 2009

A rule change approved by NFL teams this spring could force special teams coaches to overhaul some of their schemes. For the Chargers, it’s expected to simply be a tweak.

“There’s a difference between adjusting and changing,” Chargers Special Teams Coach Steve Crosby said.  “We just have to adjust a little.”

In March, teams voted to limit wedge formations on kickoff returns to a maximum of two players.  The NFL’s Competition Committee recommended the change because they believed four- and five-man wedges have produced too many injuries over the years.

Under Crosby, who has overseen San Diego’s kicking game since 2002, the Chargers have primarily used two- and three-man wedges.  They’ll no longer be allowed to use three players to form the wedge, but Crosby anticipates a smooth transition.

“We’ve never been a big-wedge team anyway,” Crosby said.  “Our guys are used to blocking one-on-one.  It’s just a matter of how you adjust the back half so you don’t have what the league looks at as a three-man wedge.”

Under the new rules, many special teams coaches may have to adjust their personnel on kickoff returns.  Teams that utilized four- and five-man wedges in the past generally did so with bulky offensive linemen who made their blocks in a congested area of the field.  Smaller wedges means less congestion, which means a different type of player could be needed to have success on returns.  

“There are more single blocks; more blocks in space now,” Crosby said.  “Before when you just had that big wedge in there, those guys were shoe to shoe and they didn’t have much adjusting to do.  They hit the first thing that showed up.  Now you’ve got to be able to settle on a guy and block him in space.  One-on-one blocking in the open field against speed is tough.  It changes the types of athletes that you can use back there.”

With teams allowed to dress just 45 players each week, the rule change could force teams to activate more linebackers or defensive backs and less linemen.

“Teams that used the big five-man wedges, they were able to dress eight or nine linemen because those guys played on kickoff return,” Crosby said.  “Those big guys aren’t going to be able to play on kickoff return anymore, so teams may not be able to keep that many linemen active.”

Crosby believes the teams forced to make major changes in scheme could struggle a bit early as players have to learn new assignments and techniques, but over time he believes things will even out.

“It’s like anything else,” Crosby said.  “As soon as you’ve done it a while and you get things figured out, you become pretty effective in doing it.”

His only concern with the rule change is that it could be difficult to enforce consistently. A 15-yard penalty will be assessed if three or more players line up shoulder to shoulder within two yards of each other on a kickoff return, but determining a two-yard window while players are on the move could be tricky. 

“Any rule that’s changed involves judgment,” Crosby said. “They’ll have to be able to officiate it the same throughout the year with different crews.” 

Crosby was highly supportive of a second rule change involving kickoffs.  Teams are no longer permitted to use bunch formations on onside kicks.  The new measure requires at least four players to line 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.

Like the wedge rule, the bunch formation on onside kicks was considered a dangerous play.  In 2006, Chargers safety Clinton Hart was injured on such a play in a game in Buffalo. 

“It was a dangerous situation and it needed to be eliminated,” Crosby said.  “I’m glad they changed it."

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