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Steelers Begrudgingly Support Drastic Change to Kickoff Rules



Pittsburgh Steelers K Chris Boswell
Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Chris Boswell kicks off in a game against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 12, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Pittsburgh Steelers would have preferred that the NFL left the kickoff alone, but when the winds of change started blowing, they got on board, eventually helping to create and supporting a rules measures that passed on Tuesday, dramatically modifying the kickoff play for the 2024 season.

The rule is based on one the XFL used for the last two springs. The ball is kicked off from the 35-yard line, like it is now, but instead of the kick coverage team being placed alongside the kicker, they are on the opposing 40-yard line. The blockers are lined up between the 30 and 35-yard line, 10 to 15 yards away.

Kicks must land inside the 20-yard line, and balls kicked into the end zone will now come all the way out to the 30-yard line, incentivizing teams to try to get the ball returned. Players can’t move until the ball is caught or hit the ground. Here’s an example of a touchdown returned by the San Antonio Brahmas last year:

The UFL, which was created for 2024 by a merger of the XFL and USFL, is not currently scheduled to use the rule this spring, though it could change course after the NFL’s decision.

The Steelers didn’t initially support the change, preferring to leave the rule as it was. The kickoff has been modified many times over the years, with the current version of the rule dramatically reducing the number of kicks returned. That was the idea when the NFL made the change to move the kickoff up, creating more and more touchbacks and fewer and fewer returns, because of the extremely high number and severity of injuries on kickoff plays. But it basically turned kickoffs into an automatic touchback. The new rule is designed to bring kickoff returns back into the NFL, while reducing the injury rate to that of a normal play.

“This is our chance to keep special teams in the game,” Atlanta Falcons CEO and competition committee chair Rich McKay said. “Special teams have been a part of the game forever. If you lose the kickoff, in our mind, you pretty much eliminated special teams, except for on a punt play. … We started at 85% returns, and we were down to 21, 22% returns. We created a dead play. We’ve got 1,900 plays where one player plays in the game — the kicker. He’s the only one playing. The others just kind of run.”

Once it became clear that something was going to happen, the Steelers took part in shaping what it would look like. Steelers special teams coordinator Danny Smith was on the committee of special teams coaches that helped develop the new rule.

“The kickoff rule is going to be interesting, let’s put it that way,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said. “We wound up voting for it, after it was sort of a foregone conclusion that it was going to pass. Not a lot of enthusiasm to start for it. … (Smith) was part of the group of special teams coaches that put this thing together, so we can blame some of it on him.”

Rooney said his reservations were centered around the dramatic nature of the change. Head coach Mike Tomlin, a member of the competition committee, said on Monday that the group’s discussions centered around the potential unintended consequences of such a drastic change.

“Body types might change. How’s it going to affect field positioning and thus scoring. Roster building, you know, the importance of the return,” Tomlin said. “It’s the ramifications, the seeing around corners, the unintended consequences.”

One of the biggest changes could be what kind of athlete teams prefer as a return man. The Steelers have traditionally used bigger, straight-line runners to return kickoffs. Running back Godwin Igwebuike filled that role for the team for most of 2023. The smaller, shiftier Calvin Austin III returned punts. It could not be that a player like Austin might make sense for kickoffs, too. And with twice as much work on one player’s plate, return man might once again be a position of significance.

Steelers special teams captain Miles Killebrew was named an All-Pro in 2023 for his work on coverage, block, return and field goal units.

RELATED: Miles Killebrew Still Loves Covering Kickoffs; ‘Closest to War I’ll Get’