NFL adopts new kickoff rule for 2018 season

May 22, 2018 | Luke Jones

When Justin Tucker and the Ravens line up for kickoffs this coming season, the play will look noticeably different.

The NFL has approved new rules for the play deemed by many to be the most dangerous in football to make kickoffs safer and to decrease the number of concussions sustained in this setting. There has been much speculation and discussion about kickoffs eventually being eliminated altogether because of the danger of having so many players running full speed at one another in the open field, but the league hopes this year’s changes will preserve the integrity of the play while making it safer.

The new rule will be reevaluated next offseason.

So, what are the notable changes?

Players on the kickoff team will no longer be permitted to take a running start and will instead be required to line up at their 34-yard-line to wait for the ball to be kicked from the usual 35.

On the flip side, the kick return team will now be required to have at least eight players in the new 15-yard “setup zone” that begins 10 yards from where the ball is kicked. This moves more players closer to where the ball is kicked, reducing the speed and spacing on the play and likely making blocking more like what you typically see on a punt.

Until the kicked ball is touched or hits the ground, no player on the receiving team may engage in any blocks in the first 15 yards from where the ball is kicked. This change is made with the intention to eliminate what the league labeled the “jump-set/attack” block and decreases the likelihood of a dangerous blindside block.

The league has also eliminated the two-man wedge in front of the kick returner, stating only players lining up in the setup zone may come together for a double-team block.

The kick returner will no longer be required to down the ball for a touchback as a kicked ball hitting any part of the ground in the end zone automatically will be deemed a touchback.

It will be interesting to see what impact these changes will have beyond the obvious objective of making the game safer. Fewer players running down the field at full speed will hopefully decrease the number of concussions, but more players lining up closer to the location of the kick could lead to more opportunities for longer kickoff returns, adding excitement to the game. Of course, that possibility could also lead teams to simply kick the ball into or through the end zone for a touchback more frequently rather than using a directional kick with more hang time.

With Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg among those who were chosen to discuss the future of the kickoff earlier this offseason, it will be interesting to hear what he and head coach John Harbaugh — a former special teams coach in Philadelphia before coming to Baltimore — have to say about the changes. Both have been adamant in the past about not eliminating the play from the game.