Lions grappling with new kickoff return rule

James Hawkins, and Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Detroit — As the preseason gives Lions coach Jim Caldwell and his staff time to evaluate players, it also gives the team time to adjust to newly implemented rules.

Back in March, NFL owners approved a one-year rule that placed touchbacks on kickoffs at the 25-yard line, instead of the 20, with the intention to limit the number of returns.

Caldwell said he expects the new rule will lead to a noticeable difference this season but his team’s approach will vary from game to game.

“With us, we’ll probably be able to be a little bit more definitive than anybody else because we’re indoors 13 out of the 16 games, or something like that,” he said. “But I think still, you’ve got to be able to handle them accordingly. You know, some teams, depending on who they are, you may decide one approach and change it up for another, but there will be some different approaches, I guarantee you, with that rule.”

In the exhibition-opening win over the Steelers last week, all seven of the Lions’ kickoffs went into the end zone, resulting in five touchbacks, a 23-yard return and a 25-yard return. On the other hand, only two of the Steelers’ four kickoffs reached the end zone, but the Lions returned every kick.

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Caldwell said during the preseason he expects to see a “wide spectrum” and said teams will kick it short intentionally just to see how guys cover it and how it works.

“I mean, you may even see us do something a little bit different depending upon the weather, depending upon situations and depending upon how well we’re covering,” Caldwell said.

It’s the latest rule change NFL has made that teams are left adapting to, following last year’s decision to move extra point attempts – but not two-point conversions – back from the two-yard line to the 15.

Against the Steelers, the Lions elected to kick extra points after three of their four touchdowns. Rookie Jake Rudock converted the team’s lone two-point conversion on a quick slant to Quinshad Davis in the fourth quarter.

Caldwell said much like kickoffs, backing up PATs gives teams another strategic decision to make. Last season, kicker Matt Prater missed three of his 39 extra point attempts after converting 280-of-282 from 2008-2014.

“Number one, you knew for a fact there were going to be a number of teams that would actually go for two rather than kick and therefore you had to have more in your arsenal. Typically, you work on a couple,” Caldwell said. “Well now, you have to have five or six because the other thing is you may go for it yourself in a number of different situations like we did (against the Steelers), but you also may go for it just to kind of exchange the point differential.

“When that happens, a team is going to have to keep up by going for two if they score. So, I think you have to work it more than you’ve ever worked it before and you have to have more plays in that particular area than you’ve ever had before.”

Caldwell said he’s unsure whether the Lions will go for two-point conversions more often this season.

“You know, the weather is sometimes a factor, but with us we have 13 games I think indoors, so it’s not going to be as much of a factor,” Caldwell said. “But when we do play those games outside, it’s also something to consider. It does weigh in on your decision.”

Who's in, who's out

The Lions were without the services of tight end Eric Ebron, running back Ameer Abdullah, linebacker DeAndre Levy and offensive tackle Michael Ola against the Cincinnati Bengals in Thursday's exhibition home opener.

Levy was in uniform and went through pregame warmups with the team, but still isn't ready for game action after being activated off the physically unable to perform list on Tuesday.

Rookie Cole Wick started at tight end and Theo Riddick took over for Abdullah on the first-team offense, while Josh Bynes started at weakside linebacker in place of Levy.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerback Darius Slay and defensive end Ziggy Ansah also made their preseason debuts with the first-team defense after sitting out last week against the Steelers.