FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick is known as a defensive genius, but in many ways he's a special teams coach at heart.
That's how he made his living as an assistant for the Lions in 1976. It's where he focused many of his efforts in Denver and New York before becoming Giants defensive coordinator in 1985. And to this day, he commits a significant number of hours and roster spots to the kicking game.
That's what made his answer to a question on the new kickoff rules Monday a bit surprising. He doesn't see them as much of a change at all, apparently.
"The new rules aren’t really new rules," he said. "They’ve taken out a couple things. They haven’t really changed anything."
Despite his special teams captain Matthew Slater calling the rules "a huge adjustment," and despite the Patriots committing a load of coaching manpower to the execution of the play during kicking-game periods this spring and summer, Belichick essentially shrugged his shoulders at the suggestion that the new rules will drastically change how the play looks in 2018.
"I mean, you still can block who you can block," he said. "They took out the wedge and they changed a couple of alignments, but that’s not really – I mean, there’s a lot of teams that lined up five by five to kick the ball off. I mean, in the history of football, there’s like probably at least a billion examples of that."
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But there are other changes coming, not just an order from the league for kicking teams to align five-by-five on either side of the kicker.
Among them? Kick coverage units will no longer be able to get running starts before the ball is kicked. Return units, meanwhile, must have at least eight players in a 15-yard set-up zone closer to midfield prior to the kickoff -- meaning only three players will be eligible to align deep.
The idea behind the changes was to have more players traveling down the field together at the same time, potentially reducing the number of high-impact collisions and injuries associated with the play. Whether those numbers will shrink or not remains to be seen, but it seems likely.
It also seems likely that teams will try to take advantage of the new rules to exploit the amount of space beyond the set-up zone, kicking to open areas to make returners travel a long way to field the football. In some cases, dropping kicks into that space may mean a player unaccustomed to handling the ball may be forced to.
Still, Belichick doesn't see big-time scheme changes coming.
"I would say for a lot of teams, the alignments on the kickoff return, really teams had those alignments anyway," he said. "I’m not saying it’s the same, but there are a lot of teams that did align like that. There are plenty of examples they showed in the coaching tapes when they talked about this rule where they showed teams lined up last year the way they lined up and [say], ‘This will be a legal alignment this year. This would be an illegal alignment.’ . . . But they were just showing examples of, you know, a guy lined differently by a yard or two made it legal or illegal. But, again, you’re talking about a pretty minimal adjustment in terms of alignment."
The removal of the wedge block is another change. Only players who line up in the set-up zone can combine for double-team blocks. Belichick conceded that would be a change, but those types of blocks were rare enough, he said, that the play won't be totally altered.
"Unless every return is a wedge, then you can run the returns that you were running or maybe modify them a little bit," Belichick explained. "But it’s taking out something, not putting it in. And, honestly, there weren’t that many wedge returns in the last three, four years anyway. I mean, there were a couple teams that run them, but it wasn’t like you saw it every return every week like it was in the 70s or there where everything was either a three- or four-man wedge. I mean, that was the return. That’s just not like that anymore."
Teams may be reluctant to put on tape during the preseason all they have planned for kicks and kick returns under the new rules so we'll see what teams truly have up their sleeves come September.
But judging by Belichick's comments Monday, he's not expecting to see anything drastically different than what we're used to.