Wedge Busted

Ravens Special Teams

Nfl's Ban On Concentrated Collision Tactic On Kick Returns Is A Relief To Some

Others Doubt Any Lessening Of Injuries

July 19, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

Brendon Ayanbadejo has crashed into football's dreaded wedge formation on more kickoffs than he can count during six NFL seasons. There has been pain, pride and self-preservation in every impact.

"Probably half the time I've been a wedge guy," the Ravens' Pro Bowl special-teamer says. "I'm not too fond of going against the wedge. I'm not too fond of it just because the wedge is a thing you have to honor. So I can't just run around it or run by it. I have to engage."

The wedge has long been the NFL's ultimate test of courage and/or sanity. Line up three, four or five of the team's biggest, toughest players in front of the kick return man, send a few kamikaze-types sprinting from the other end of the field and wait for the soul-baring collisions.

This offseason, the NFL decided it had seen enough of those violent impacts. So, two years after Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills suffered a life-threatening cervical spine injury covering a kickoff, the league banned the wedge.

The intent is to reduce the number of players getting blown up and carried off on any kickoff.

When the Ravens open training camp in Westminster on July 27, the rule change will be met with equal parts skepticism, relief and indifference.

"I don't particularly think guys were necessarily getting injured any more on that play than any other play," Jerry Rosburg, the Ravens special teams coordinator, said, somewhat skeptically. "There's going to be collisions, no matter what."

Asked about NFL statistics that suggest a higher injury rate on kickoffs than other plays, Rosburg said, "If you torture the numbers long enough, they'll confess to anything."

Still, it is problematic for smaller players - like Ayanbadejo, who weighs less than 230 pounds - to engage bigger players in the wedge. Ayanbadejo said that early in his career he had "stingers" every season from shots he took going against the wedge.

"Yes, I believe it will make it safer," he said. "It's probably better for me. I think it's a good rule change. Did it have to be changed? No. Is it going to make a big impact on the game? Probably not."

Gone is the three-or-more-man wall of humanity, arms linked, ready to take out the other team's gunner.

In its place will be a variety of blocking schemes and some combinations thereof. There are man schemes, zone schemes and now there will be some two-man wedge schemes, something the Ravens experimented with at organized team activities this summer. Rosburg speculated that some teams will have two, two-man wedges.

The Ravens ran a three-man wedge last season under Rosburg. Teams that used four-man wedges will have a greater transition, he said, though not every team ran wedges.

"One thing I have learned about coaches in this league is they'll adapt," Rosburg said. "They'll figure out a way to run whatever they run and they're going to go by the rules because nobody wants to get penalized. At this point in time, we're still in a bit of discovery mode as to not only what to run, but how to run what you have."

The penalty for an illegal wedge is 15 yards. Given where wedges normally form, that could become a half-the-distance penalty and dictate poor field position. Last season, the Ravens ranked 29th in the league with an average drive start inside the 25-yard line.

Several Ravens who were questioned about the ban said they doubted it will make much difference. Jarret Johnson, a starting linebacker who has played on the Ravens' wedge the past three seasons, allowed that it was a step in the right direction for safety.

"But you're never going to make the game safe," he said. "There's still going to be as many concussions, there's still going to be a lot of high-speed collisions. But two big linemen [on the wedge] killing a small defensive back, I don't know if that's going to happen much anymore. We'll see."

Justin Bannan, who has been on the Ravens' wedge since arriving in 2006, doesn't think a lot has changed.

"As far as impact, I'm still going to have a guy running down [at me] and I'm still going to block him," Bannan said.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who coached special teams nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, said he thinks the change will lead to more long returns. The Ravens, who ranked 31st in the league in kick returns in 2008 with a 20.1 average, could use the help.

The NFL trend already was toward longer kick returns. In 2005 and 2006, there were a combined 21 touchdowns on kickoff returns. There were 25 alone in 2007 and 13 more in 2008.

But safety is the biggest impetus for the ban. Implicit in the change is the idea that certain players - known as wedge-busters - were charged with breaking up the wedge. Rosburg disputes that notion and says he doesn't use the term wedge-buster.

"I can only speak for us," Rosburg said, "but I think it's safe to say special teams coaches are not throwing guys in there with the idea we can sacrifice them. That's not the way the game is coached. These are human beings we're coaching.

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