New targeting and kickoff rules forcing Bills to adjust practice tactics

PITTSFORD, NY – Every NFL offseason brings an assortment of new rules that effect the way the game is played and officiated. This past offseason that included an assortment of major and controversial changes to say the least.

There was the much needed revamp of the catch rule – something players, coaches, executives and fans were collectively thankful to see. Of course the tenuous National Anthem policy debate dragged on and caused plenty of public outrage. But there’s one change in particular that will have the biggest impact on the way games are played on Sundays.

Back in March, the NFL owners focused their attention on player safety by adopting a new “targeting” rule, similar to that seen in college football. Players who lower their head to initiate contact with an opponent will now be assessed a 15-year penalty and depending on the severity of the hit, could face disqualification.

The rule comes after league data showed a 13.5-percent increase in the number of diagnosed concussions from 2016 to 2017. Throw in the devastating helmet-first hit that left Steelers Ryan Shazier motionless on the field late last season and it’s easy to understand what influenced the decision.

Such a seismic change brought mixed responses from players and fans alike. Regardless, a rule is a rule, and this one is changing the way teams are preparing for this upcoming season.

As Day Three of Bills training camp got started with the knowledge that players would be in pads for the first time, Bills head coach Sean McDermott understands the importance of players safety and explained how his coaching staff has adjusted to the new rule.

“Yeah, I mean, look, [the] players’ safety is always number one [of importance] in what we do and teaching the right techniques,” McDermott said. “We’ve spent a lot of time in the offseason refining what we do in all areas, including fundamentals and technique. We talk about it in meetings, just the latest [in] this morning’s meeting that we play with the proper technique.

“Just because we put pads on doesn’t mean that we lose our fundamentals and technique. If anything, that has to be continually emphasized when our pads come on. It’s an adjustment that, just like a lot of rules and rule changes, as a team, you better make. I think we’ll see that emphasized early on and certainly throughout the year and we need to make that adjustment and we’re going to work hard at it in training camp.”

Of course, coaches have always preached technique in the past, particularly at the start of training camp. Establishing proper contact habits early on in the process can set the tone for the rest of the season. But when push comes to shove – literally – in between the lines during a live game, those habits often go to the wayside. Players will sacrifice their bodies in any way possible to make a tackle, or pick up a first down.

Now more than ever though, players will have to be mindful of how they are initiating contact or risk more than just the hefty fines of the past. A 15-yard penalty, or, worse, disqualification hurts the entire team, not just one player’s wallet.

That’s not the only rule change forcing teams to prepar different. The owners also passed a series of new regulations for kickoffs. Widely considered the most dangerous play in football, the NFL has eliminated wedge blocks in front of returners entirely, and positioned players on both the kickoff and kickoff return teams in more confined spaces to prevent full speed collisions.

NFL Football Operations released this diagram back in May to help explain what’s different.

Yet another rule that teams are being forced to adapt to during training camp.

“[Kickoffs are] going to be a big, new play, if you will, to watch in our game. Again, we have to adjust,” McDermott said. “We’ve spent countless hours amongst our staff, Danny [Crossman] in particular [and] myself as well as Matt Smiley, trying to, number one, understand and get clarity around the rules and then also as it pertains to this rule. Also, strategizing around what we can do projecting what we may see or not see.”

Ultimately, these modifications are par for the course in the most dangerous sport in the world. That doesn’t mean their implementation will come smoothly. For veteran players who are used to playing the game with a certain physicality it will take time to break old habits. Even for young players, adapting to the speed of they’ll be forced to learn to operate around these new rules while adapting to faster football.

As McDermott would say, it’s a process. One that the NFL hopes can become a the norm pretty quickly. That all depends on how quickly teams can adapt to the changes, which starts at training camp.

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