Ravens special teams coordinator Chris Horton gets to coach again, he said with a laugh.

His role puts him in charge of punt return and coverage teams, extra point and field goal units and kick return and coverage teams, but for the past couple of years, that third section hasn’t required much thinking or coaching. More and more teams have simply kicked the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a touchback. The only one doing anything but running is the kicker.

Some games, Horton said, he would have only seven plays to grade (four punts and three punt returns) because pretty much all the kickoffs and kick returns went for touchbacks or the returners called for fair catches.

“It was just, ‘Man, I really want to coach this phase,’” Horton said.

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Then the 32 NFL owners passed a rules change at the annual owners’ meeting in Orlando, Florida, in March. The goal? Bring kickoffs back into the game.

“It does give us a little bit more life,” Horton said. “Our players want more football. I said this last year, our players live for covering kicks. And we’ll cover kicks, and we’ll return kicks, and we’ll be pretty good at it. But I am fired up, man. I told these guys as I was walking up, ‘If you don’t adapt, you die.’ So I love my job. I love coaching special teams, so I want to make sure we keep this going.”

Summarized quickly, the new rules encourage teams to kick the ball into a “landing zone” from the receiving team’s end zone to the 20-yard line. To discourage touchbacks, the ball will be placed at the 30 instead of the 25-yard line. Any balls that land in the landing zone must be returned.

The coverage has changed a lot, as well. Instead of lining up on the line of scrimmage with the kicker, the coverage team will line up at the receiving team’s 35 while the receiving team, other than the returners, lines up at the 30. Neither team can move until the ball has landed on the ground or in a returner’s hands. That takes a lot of the running out of it and decreases the speed at which collisions happen.

Coach John Harbaugh, who is the only head coach who was elevated from special teams coordinator, attended the meetings where the rule change was proposed and asked many, many questions. He wasn’t hesitant to share his doubts about whether this rule change was the correct one, but once it passed, he professed excitement about the possibilities.

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That excitement goes beyond the play callers who are ready to scheme.

“I know our guys feel pretty good about it. ‘We get to cover kicks. We get to return the ball again,’” Horton said. “Those are some things that were lost over the last couple of years.”

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And those players will be part of the process as they figure out what this is going to look like. Horton said they’ve watched film from the XFL, which has similar kickoff rules, and they understand it, but there’s a difference between the academic understanding that comes from film study and the physical understanding that comes from practice.

Wednesday was the first time the Ravens got to practice the new kickoff with 11 players on each side.

“We can work on the drills in the football schools and the kickoff coverage drills, but until you get 11 guys out there against 11 on 11 and really see and feel the play, being out there, and then you ask the players, right, how do you feel? How does that feel? We want you to do this. Can you do that? They’re like, ‘Ahhh, Coach,’ well then, we keep working on those things,” Horton said.

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It’s all been a big experiment so far, with no clear standard practices, and it will continue to be. Horton said he’s sure this offseason will feature them putting things in — and taking things out.

There are a lot of possibilities in terms of returners, blocking schemes and even kickers. Justin Tucker is known for his ability to place a ball, but punter Jordan Stout, who kicked at Penn State, has the ability to tackle guys. And one of the main concerns about the new formation is that, if the returner breaks through the players at the 35, the kicker is the only line of defense between him and the end zone.

There have been various players returning the ball through the first two open days of organized team activities. But one potential returner, free-agent signing Deonte Harty, has not been in attendance. Horton said a big reason they got him was to replace Pro Bowl returner Devin Duvernay. One thing Horton can promise is that you probably won’t be seeing new star running back Derrick Henry returning kicks.

The nice thing is, the new rule requires less running, which means the team can get more reps in and will have more time to figure things out. It’s a lot of work, but Horton welcomes the chance to exercise his kickoff-scheming skills again.

“And when it’s all said and done, it’s put together, I do believe it’s going to be an exciting play — and hopefully, we’re on the exciting end of it having a lot of success,” Horton said.

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