NFL game officials will be meeting with Texans media in a few minutes to discuss rule changes for the 2009 season that were designed with player safety in mind. One of the most significant of these new rules involves wedges on kickoff returns. Teams will no longer be allowed to line up more than two blockers shoulder-to-shoulder within two yards of each other to form a wedge. The rule is punishable by a 15-yard penalty enforced at the spot of the foul.
In the past, teams would form a wall (wedge) with anywhere from three to five players, but the league changed the rule to prevent injury caused by "wedge-busting", or players running recklessly downfield with the sole purpose of eliminating one of the pieces of the wedge. Two Texans players have been forced into retirement because of injuries suffered on kickoffs over the past two seasons – Cedric Killings, blocking on a return in 2007, and Harry Williams, covering a return in 2008.
The new rule has forced Texans special teams coordinator Joe Marciano to adjust his return strategy.
"It's a challenge for everybody," Marciano said. "Some teams have done it in the past, so they don't have to change their playbook. We have never been a two-man wedge team, so we changed our playbook and we'll experiment in practice and the preseason and see what we can come up with."
Marciano said that the Texans will have an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman form the two-man wedge. Those players probably will be whoever makes the team as the fifth or six offensive lineman and defensive lineman, he said.
The Texans' second special teams practice of camp, which was on Wednesday, focused on kickoff returns. On Wednesday afternoon, Marciano said that he could see things coming together but that the team has a long way to go.
"This first practice was a teach mode," Marciano said. "We're definitely in a teach mode. Today we're in kindergarten, tomorrow we'll be in first grade, next day we'll be in second grade and by the time we play the Jets, hopefully we'll be in graduate school and beyond."
Marciano is one of the top special teams coaches in the league. He spent 10 years in charge of the Saints' special teams and six in Tampa Bay before coming to Houston in 2002. The Texans tied the NFL single-season record with four kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2007, and André Davis ranked second in the NFL with a 30.3-yard return average that season. Kick returner Jerome Mathis earned a Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro honors in 2005 as a rookie under Marciano.
Only time will tell if the wedge rule affects Marciano's success as an orchestrator of kickoff returns.