How NFL Onside Kicks Are Changing

by Ian Wharton

Two major off-season rule changes have already altered how games are being played through the first five weeks of the 2018 NFL season. We previously looked at the roughing the passer rule, but the onside kick process has been affected so far as well.

Optimum Scouting’s Justis Mosqueda detailed the two concurrent rule adjustments over summer. Essentially, the return team must line up with no less than eight players within their own 40-yard-line and the opposition’s 45, and there’s no running starts allowed.

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With 13 onside kicks attempted but just two recoveries, it’s time to look at how the changes have made it even more difficult to retain possession of the ball from an onside kick. There were 12 recoveries on 52 onside kick attempts in 2017, equaling a 23 percent recovery rate. Two out of 13 has dropped that number to 15 percent.

Some of this is luck. For example, the recovery rate in 2016 was a mere 10 percent since only six attempts resulted in an offensive repossession. In 2015, the successful recovery rate was 14.8 percent. 

Despite the rule changes looking like an onside kick-killer, teams have stayed within a 15 percent success range and had the chance to be even higher had the bounces gone the right way.

The first successful onside kick this season came in Week 2 via New York Giants kicker Aldrick Rosas. It was his first of two tries in the game. As seen above, Rosas identified Cowboys tight end Blake Jarwin as his victim and kicked it directly to him with hopes that the bounce would create a bounce back effect.

It worked perfectly as the backup tight end couldn’t hold on to it and the Giants utilized their fastest players along the attack line. Odell Beckham can be seen several yards ahead of his teammates after the kick. The ball eventually works its way back to the Giants after the muff.

The second successful recovery came in Week 5 as Jacksonville Jaguars’ kicker Josh Lambo executed another familiar strategy. Lambo sharply kicked the top of the ball and chased the ball in hopes of reaching it as the defender was blocked by his teammate. It worked.

There have been three other near-successes too. All three of the attempts were straight-forward enough, even as the Eagles tried to deceive the Vikings with a quick switch of the kick direction. 

The goal in each situation was to get the ball to the second level with a high bounce that would buy time for a sprinting attacker to pluck the ball away from a stagnant defender who has to worry about the impending collision. The aggressiveness creates opportunities with eyes glued to the ball and bodies crashing together.

Minnesota should’ve recovered the ball in the first clip as the ball went right through the hands of C.J. Ham. The Vikings then were fortunate to not lose the ball in the second example when Adam Thielen double-clutched the ball. Finally, the Chargers nearly lost the Bills’ onside attempt until Keenan Allen plucked it out of the air before the Bills’ attacker could punch it away.

The majority of the kicks weren’t well-kicked balls. The difficulty of these attempts is high and the slightest miss by the kicker or a charging player throws off the timing of the group. That was the case in each of the six unsuccessful kicks above. 

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Without a numbers advantage due to the rule change, kicking teams have been struggling to find a weak spot in the formations. Individual players can be targeted but even the middle of the field usually has three players nearby. 

The difference between these plays and the successful ones earlier is tiny. There’s not a running group pre-snap, so the defense is able to sit at the 10-yard mark with a slight advantage compared to years past. A mistake still costs possession of the ball and a hit is coming at some point, but it’s easier to focus on the ball until that point now.

Of course, there are two remaining onside kick attempts that must be mentioned. These squib attempts sailed over the frontline heads of the defense, but had no chance of recovery without being allowed to run prior to contact being made with the ball. 

The first one went completely out of bounds, and the second was comfortably recovered with 10 yards of cushion between the teams. There may not be a perfect way to recover an onside kick, but squibs seem especially unlikely.