Before the season, Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ special teams co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold predicted rule changes surrounding punt coverage would cause a spike in the number of blocked kicks.
Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hamilton has blocked a league-leading five punts this season, a full third of the leaguewide total of 15.
That number is just two shy of last year’s mark – there are still four weeks left in the season – and it’s significant increase over the five-year average of 10.6 blocks per year.
The Ticats are also two shy of the team record of seven blocked kicks in a season (set in 2000), and three short of the league record of eight held by the 1986 Edmonton Eskimos.
“We anticipated that with the change in the rules that the protections that teams had used in the past – which essentially just let guys get downfield – would have to change, ” Reinebold said. “And that would create opportunities.”
This spring, the Canadian Football League board of governors approved a series of rule changes in the kicking game.
While moving the touchdown convert to the 32-yard line (instead of the 12) got the most ink, the decision to keep the five interior linemen on the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked is what’s generating the rash of blocks. Return teams don’t have to face as many players in the first wave and can invest more guys in going for the football.
Canadian defensive back Mike Daly plays on both the punt return and cover units and said he’s had to adjust his approach when protecting punter Justin Medlock.
“I’ve had to think about the scheme as a whole, as opposed to just thinking about blocking my guy, ” Daly said. “It’s about reacting to the situation if another team decides to bring pressure.”
On the flip side, Hamilton’s aggressive approach – Ed Gainey blocked a punt last week against Saskatchewan and Daly just missed another – has forced teams to invest more in making sure they can get the kick off.
That, in turn, means less players downfield to cover the return.
“Philosophically, we never want the long snapper or the punter to be comfortable. That doesn’t mean you go after the punt every time, but there has to be the threat, ” Reinebold said. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between the pressure and the returns, the returns and the pressure.”
With the Ticats blocking so many kicks, it’s no coincidence that Brandon Banks leads the CFL with four punt return touchdowns and has six returns of more than 30 yards.
The coverage units have been solid as well. While Hamilton is near the bottom in net punting, they’ve yet to allow a kick return for a touchdown and have allowed only two returns of 40 yards or more, tied with Montreal for the fewest in the CFL.
How important is that stat? Teams that return a kick 40 yards or more score a touchdown on 32 per cent of those drives – more than twice the normal rate.
“Cover guys have it tougher because they now have to protect and then escape and cover, ” Reinebold said. “The play of the runners becomes more valuable and the punter, his ability to locate the ball and give it height becomes more critical.”
The Ticats are facing a tough test this Sunday in Montreal, where return man Stefan Logan leads the league in both punt and kickoff yardage, and has two return touchdowns. The Als average the best starting field position in the CFL.
And like Hamilton, Montreal has yet to have a kick blocked this season. Yet.
“Designing punt blocks are exactly the same as designing blitzes – you’re always trying to create a free guy, ” Reinebold said. “The bottom line is that the player has to take the scheme to the field and do it.”