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Extraordinary Success Miami's Onside Kicking Game

by: Mike Westhoff
Special Teams Coach Miami Dolphins
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At Miami, we teach and use the onside kick in two specific ways: (1) a "surprise" kick where we attempt to catch our opponents off guard; and (2) the desperation situation-the typical onside kick circumstance where you have to get the ball back. We have been exceptionally efficient in this phase of the game. As a matter of fact, during 1997 in our game versus New England (November 23, 1997), our kick coverage team recovered an NFL record three in the same game. I am convinced our success is due to our planning and the dedicated way we practice it in a full-speed manner during training camp and in-season.

Diagram 1

The Surprise Onside Kick

With the surprise kick, we execute from a regular kickoff formation and, if all goes according to plan, it will be a surprise to the receiving team. We want to try this when a kickoff return team is in its normal formation (see Diagram 1).

To execute the fundamentals of the surprise kick, it's important to note that we generally would try it when we're behind in a game-at a point in time where strategically we would take a chance to kick onside early if all of the variables are in place.

As I stated earlier, in most situations, we line up in a normal kickoff formation and if the team we are playing is in a normal formation and we've called this onside kick, then we'll go ahead and execute it. Some teams adjust to us after we had successfully recovered an onside kick against them.

They would take their back-line kickoff return personnel (in our system, we refer to them as their ends and fullbacks) and walk them right up in behind the front line. Then as our kicker would go through his normal pre-kick routine, they then would retreat to a normal depth. If they did that and we had called it, we would go ahead and execute the onside kick. If they stayed up there, in other words presented us with a 9-man front, then we would kick the ball deep.

The way we carry out the surprise kick is to have the ball placed on the tee in an upright position-fairly upright. We give no external indication of what is coming.

The next factor is crucial to our success. Our kicker is very effective because he has the ability to execute this kick from his normal kickoff depth, using his normal kickoff stance, and making his normal kickoff approach to the ball. He does not alter that at all. The difference is as he approaches the ball, at basically his normal speed, he'll slow a little bit at the end and there is a tiny adjustment in his technique (he will drift slightly to his left to create a better kicking angle), it should not even be noticeable to the receiving team.

The kicker kicks down through the top of the ball and drives it immediately straight down into the ground. The ball will ricochet and bounce up into the air. We can get it as high 15 feet in the air on artificial turf. In a normal situation on the grass, he can kick it about 10-12 feet high. The ball will travel about 12-15 yards. We will aim the ball at a spot basically to the bottom of the number in our field measurements, as this is the optimal position for our kicker to get it to.

Diagram 2

We make very specific blocking assignments to accomplish our surprise onside kick. We number from the kicker on out 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Our No. 1 is assigned to take out their center, he has no other responsibility. Our No. 2 is assigned to block their guard. No. 3 is assigned to block their tackle. Both four and five go for the ball. No. 1 on the opposite side (as soon as our kicker starts his approach), crosses over and runs in behind him. It is not a motion. It is more like a blitz (see Diagram 2).

We use this coverage a tremendous amount of the time in order to get a 6-4 advantage. The off-side No. 1 will come right in behind and go for the ball. The kicker comes over to that side and becomes the safety on that side. In other words, if there is a play on the ball, meaning somebody catches it clean, the kicker will be the safety over there. Sometimes a two or three from the far side will drive over in behind to be a safety and provide additional insurance against a return.

On the kick, our goal is to get the ball to go 10-12 feet in the air. This forces the return team to stand there waiting for the ball to come down or "to get the rebound"- just like in basketball. We will come down and drill them and go for the ball.

We think the onside kick is a very good weapon because the kick itself is hard to concentrate on and catch with our guys running full speed right at the receiving team. Because the kicker immediately drives the ball into the ground, the receiving team is not able to fair catch it. They cannot really move up on it like a kick that rolls towards them-it is difficult to control. They just have to stand there and wait for it. So, if they're waiting for it, we're going to go through, hit them, and get the ball.

Diagram 3

The Desperation Onside Kick

When the other team knows an onside kick is coming or expects it to, we use a particular formation. We overload to a side, putting eight people on the side of the kick. Our players will spread out from the sideline to the top of number on our left side of the field. They are aligned at eight yards from the ball (see Diagram 3).

We have a safety that's lined up in between the kicker and our coverage team. His back is toward the opponents, and he is aligned in between the kicker and the eight players on the line. We also have another safety on the other side who comes over and gets in behind and acts as a safety.

In this formation, certain players are designated to attack. They are going to hit the opponents, block them and take them out. Everyone else is assigned to go for the ball. It is important to note that three of the players are designated as blockers and have specific blocking assignments (i.e. we tell them who they are assigned to hit). The other five guys go for the ball.

When the kicker gets ready, the other guys on our coverage team are down in their stances, our safety has his hands up in the air (he's like a conductor), and checks with the kicker. The kicker will tell him "I'm ready." The safety will then drop his hand and instructs the coverage team to "go". (This is important because all the kicker has to concentrate on is executing the kick.)

With our coverage team at eight yards from the LOS, we are timed up and just as the kicker hits the ball, our players are coming to the line. The timing is critical for good execution of this kick. Again, it's the same type kick as used on the surprise onside kick.

Some teams have come up with innovative ways to combat our coverage scheme. For example, they will take their front line and assign them to attack our guys coming down to block them. In other words, they block the coverage team. This allows the guys behind the front line to play on the ball.

Diagram 4

Against that type of philosophy, we take their front line and "spread them out" rather than from the number to the sideline, we will spread out from the hash mark to the sideline. If you're going to block us, we're going to spread your wall a little bit thin. So we have an answer to go against that type of protection plan. Again, we still have designated blockers and ball people (see Diagram 4).

All in all, we do as good a job as anybody in the league with our onside kick coverage game. Our success rate as been phenomenal and I hope these points can help your team in the future.

Q & A With Miami's Mike Westhoff

Q: What do you do to destroy the blocking pattern of a return team?

A. We move our people around all the time. I move them around constantly because each one of our players on our kickoff coverage has a particular designed role and technique. It doesn't matter where I put him, he still executes that same role and technique. It is not uncommon for us to move people all over the place. I'm using it to gain mismatches and predetermine who will be trying to block our players-I want to dictate the play to the receiving team as opposed to vice versa. For example, if a team is a wedge team, I want the big guys taking on the wedge, not the little guys-things like that. I treat kickoff coverage a little bit like blitzing and do it from different looks and slants. But, the most important part is that for me to move someone around is not uncommon.

Q: How much time do you devote to practicing your onside kicks?

A: Before each practice, we have a separate walk through devoted just for our kicking game. This is from 11:30 a.m.-12 noon, and then our practices start at 2:00 p.m. We'll walk through all these situations. The kicker will go and practice this kick by himself or work with me on his technique. When we actually do this as a team, we do it once. When we practice things in Miami, we do them hard. We go at full speed. We'll walk through and I'll go over it as many times as necessary. I make certain everybody understands their role, how they line up, who's going to hit whom, and how we want to time it. When we practice on Fridays everything is full speed, we line up execute it completely.

Q: What about in pre-season?

A: In pre-season we teach a little more. In training camp, all of our kicking game takes a little more time. We'll spend a few more reps, but not as many as you might think. The whole key is that when you're up to bat-you've got to be ready to go. Our guys come hard.

We'll tell the return guys over there "Hey, we're coming at you," but we're not kill each other. In the NFL with limited numbers, you can't do that.

Every Friday during the season-we would practice the play and were successful every single time. We never missed it. The defensive backs know how to "go for the ball." They can all play basketball, they can all dunk and, believe me, they can jump. That's why we have them in these roles. We look for those types of athletes to put in those positions, it's part of the overall plan.

Q: Is the fact that a kicker can execute your type of onside kick (i.e. from a full approach...) something that you look for in kickers?

A: Sure. For us, the key thing is we have a kicker that can execute the kick. If I work the guy out I would ask him to do this. I first saw this in 1987, when we had Tony Franklin for a very short while. Tony taught me this kick and he was great at it. None of our other kickers could execute this type of kick. Our current kicker, Olindo Mare, has this down and can pull it off at any time.

Q: How important is the opponent's alignment to you in your decision to onside kick?

A. Obviously, sometimes the score and game clock leave us no choice whatsoever. But, in the surprise situation, it is very important. If you're playing us up, we'll kick it deep. We had second best kickoff coverage in NFL and the best starting field position in the AFM. So, if we want to kick it deep, we can cover the kick as well. So if you're playing us up-we're going to kick it deep. If you play us back, we may pull this on anybody at anytime. The decision to use this is a game plan call and Coach Johnson will let me know if he wants to use it.


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