Bears News: Hightower says kickoff rule change elevates importance of special teams

Bears News: Hightower says kickoff rule change elevates importance of special teams


by - Correspondent -

CHICAGO—The Chicago Bears just wrapped up their second week of organized team activities (OTAs). OTAs are important for numerous reasons, but they are especially important for special teams as special teams coordinator Richard Hightower continues to develop his strategy with the NFL’s new kickoff rule change.

“The league is all about matchups, especially when you’re dealing with special teams. So, we’re going to have to match up with whatever personnel group we’re going against, and we’ve been fortunate to have bigger players that can run and then also even smaller players that are powerful, like (running backs) Roschon (Johnson) or (Travis) Homer. Those guys can block linebackers, and they’re fast enough to block DBs, and then you got your other body types like (defensive end Austin) Booker,” Hightower said. “So, I think the personnel department’s done a hell of a job getting a mix of all of those just to see what it looks like in the preseason.”

This rule was originally tested in the XFL before it merged with the USFL to create the UFL. In the XFL, there were far more returns on kickoffs. Further, the XFL showed how the kickoff return could continue to exist without increasing injury risks.

As coordinators such as Hightower continue to experiment with their scheme, he turned to his connections in the former XFL to learn how they approached it.

“I’d feel like I would be doing our players a disservice if I didn’t talk to the XFL about it. Talked to several XFL coaches, probably about six of them, and some of them have worked in the NFL and got really good relationships with them and going to continue to talk to them about it and talk to them about our drills and techniques and what they saw in their games and what happened because we’re all students of the game,” Hightower said. “I want our players to have the best opportunity to be successful. So, I feel like it’s our obligation as coaches to make sure that we turn over every rock for our players.”

One point mentioned about the kickoff rule change is that it will most likely severely decrease if not completely eliminate, touchbacks.

However, Hightower sees the strategic benefit in a touchback, particularly given the kick returners in the NFC North, such as Keisean Nixon with the Green Bay Packers, who received All-Pro honors last season.

“I think it’s situational, so it depends on the situation. There’ll be sometimes in the game where what returners are you playing. In our NFC North, all the returners are loaded. All the teams are loaded,” Hightower said. “If you don’t have a returner in (the) NFC North, then you’re behind the eight ball. It’s all-pro up north, and that team, then you got the one at the Vikings too. So, you got to have one. So, I think they’ll be times when there’ll be some touchbacks. But, more than anything, we want to get more returns in the game. So, it’s more opportunities for the coverage players.”

Hightower also touched on another aspect of the kickoff rule change — it increases the importance of special teams.

While special teams have always been important in the game, especially in creating momentum-shifting plays, this rule change increases that aspect and the number of plays that will take place in the game, according to Hightower.

“I definitely think it elevates the importance … We’re bringing more plays back into the game. So, we’re bringing more yardage into the game. (It) should help the drive start for the offense and the defense, depending on how the play shakes out,” Hightower said. “But, I really think it heightens the importance for the players because now, you’re going to have to keep a certain amount of players on your roster because you know you’re going to have eight to 10, maybe 12, more plays than when you go kickoff, kickoff return … Those guys in our room right now are saying, ‘(More) plays, more opportunities.’ That’s what they’re saying, so they're excited as hell about it.”

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