Falcons have cracked the onside-kick code

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Falcons special teams coach Ben Kotwica discusses what goes into a successful onside kick. The Falcons recovered three onside kicks in their Thanksgiving game against the Saints. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

In the NFL, the onside kick appeared headed the way of the dinosaur to extinction.

NFL’s rule changes on kickoffs were designed to reduce the risk of injuries and concussions before the 2018 season, and they nearly erased the onside kick from the game.

The Falcons, who lead the league in onside kicks (seven) and recoveries (two), have adapted to the rules under new special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica.

The Falcons recovered three onside kicks in a row against New Orleans on Thanksgiving night to give the team a chance with the final minutes of the 26-18 loss.

“I don’t think it’s out of the game,” Kotwica said Thursday. “Carolina had one this week, and New England almost got one. So, it’s still a play.”

Last season, NFL teams recovered 4 of 52 onside kicks for a 7.6% success rate. Before the rule change, the success rate hovered around 15% for the previous decade.

This season, NFL teams have recovered 6 of 24 onside kicks for a 25% success rate.

“It’s still difficult to recover,” Kotwica said. “I think it’s a compliment to the kicker (Younghoe Koo) hitting a good ball and the effort that those players exhibited. Just really battling to get the ball. They gave our guys a chance to stay in the game.”

With the Falcons trailing 26-15, linebacker Foye Oluokun recovered the first attempt, but Russell Gage was offside and the recovery was nullified. Oluokun recovered the second onside kick.

On the ensuing possession, the Falcons made a field goal to produce a one-score game.

The Saints knew another onside kick was coming, but Oluokun punched the ball after it went 10 yards and Kemal Ishmael recovered the kick.

“Fortunately, it rolled in our favor three times,” Ishmael said. “The kick happened to be just where it needed to be. They didn’t come out and block us how they should. They left a couple of guys free. They wanted (Alvin) Kamara to get the ball, but you know the speed we had out there and everybody grinding for it, we came up with it.”

The new rules require five players to be on each side of the ball with no stacks or running starts. Two players have to be outside the numbers. Ishmael, a veteran, was on special teams before the rule changes and used to get a running start.

“You just have to be more patient,” Ishmael said. “The kick has to be more perfect. You can’t get that running start any more on the kickoff or on the onside kick. It makes it way more difficult.”

The Saints appeared to focus on the speedy Gage, which left Oluokun a path to the ball.

“Russ got there and affected Kamara on the first kick, and we had to run it back,” Oluokun said. “I think all of them kind of compensated for it, and they all kind of slid that way and allowed me to just run down the field.”

Oluokun, a linebacker who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds coming out of Yale, doesn’t know why he was unaccounted for.

“I got there before Kamara did,” Oluokun said. “He might have been weary about going back up there to get the ball. The first time I just caught it before he got there. The second time the guy was indecisive on getting it or blocking me. The ball went over his head, and I ran by him and made the play.”

Koo plays a key role in making sure the ball slowly goes 10 yards so the players have time to get to the ball.

“Koo kicks great balls, so it gives the front line indecision on if they should field it or let it go,” Oluokun said. “If there is any indecision, it lets us get up on them. If they make the wrong decision, we’re back there. It’s kind of the way the ball was kicked and us hustling.”

Gage said, “I think we were able to get them because of the grit and effort. At the end of the day, that’s all onside kicks are. You can draw up all the plays you want for onside kicks, but if you don’t have the guys willing to put it on the line, then you won’t get them.”

The new rules limit the variety of kicks. The high-bouncer is out, and the slow-roller looks to be the new onside kick of choice.

“You used to see a ton of the high hops that would go behind the line,” Kotwica said.  “Now, the way the ball is being delivered this year looks a little bit different.”

The timing needs to be near perfect.

“I think that it stills keep the kickoff in there,” Kotwica said. “On the onside kicks you’re not getting, that built up speed. That one when you do have those onside kick scenarios, that official is watching the line a lot closer.”

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