Last Sunday, the Detroit Lions had seven kickoffs. On all seven kicks, Sam Martin sent the ball short of the goal line, ensuring a return from the New York Giants. It was clear that the Lions did not want to give the Giants a touchback, giving them free field position at the 25-yard.
Their strategy undoubtedly worked. On six of the seven kickoffs, the Giants failed to return it to the 25-yard line, and the only time they succeeded in getting past that benchmark was at the end of the first half. The kickoff successfully ran nine seconds off the clock, giving New York just 11 seconds—essentially no time—to work with their above-average field position (34-yard line).
In today’s NFL, that’s a peculiar strategy. Look around the league, and just about everyone is avoiding kick returns like the plague. 29 of 32 teams just boot the ball into the endzone for a touchback on 50 percent or more of kickoffs. Ever since the league moved the kickoff up five yards, teams have been happy just avoiding a return and letting their opponent start at the 25.
Not the Detroit Lions.
Martin has kicked a touchback on just 23.8 percent of kickoffs this year, which is nearly 20 percent lower than any other team in the NFL. To give you an idea of just how unpopular this strategy is, 10 teams kick touchbacks 75 percent or more of the time, while the extreme case of the Carolina Panthers have only allowed one kick return all years, booting it into the end zone in every other instance.
The Lions’ strategy is unique to the NFL, and it has some merit. Kickoff returns have been largely ineffective since the NFL made restrictive rule changes both in 2016 and 2018. Our friends at Cat Scratch Reader—who are staunchly against the Panthers’ strategy to kick deep every play—had a fantastic breakdown of the numbers:
You have a roughly equal chance of stopping the returner at or inside the 20 (34.3% of returns) as you do allowing them to pass the 25 (35.2% of returns).
You’re significantly more likely to stop your opponent inside the 15 (10.1% of returns) than you are to allow them past the 40 (6.9%) of returns.
You’re more likely to stop opponent within their own 10 yard line (1.8% of returns), than you are to allow them to cross your 40 yard line (1.7% of returns).
As author Jonathan DeLong points out, forcing a return also has two potential big benefits to it: drawing a special teams flag or forcing a fumble. While you risk a potential touchdown, DeLong notes that it’s more than twice as likely to recover a fumble on a kickoff (happens 1.99 percent of the time) than it is to allow a touchdown (0.75 percent).
So how has it been working for the Lions? Swimmingly. Detroit ranks ninth in kick return average allowed (21.1) and their defense has the third-best starting field position in the entire NFL, partially thanks to this strategy (this statistic also includes field position after turnovers and punts, too).
That field position is absolutely critical for this struggling defense right now. The longer field you give your defense to bend, the less likely they are to break. The Lions defense is 31st in yards allowed right now, but they’re 26th in points allowed. That may not seem like a huge difference, but we’re talking about 4-5 point difference that this kickoff strategy is at least partially responsible for.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia said a lot of factors play a part in their strategy—be it the opposing kick returner, the weather conditions and the confidence they have in their own players. Playing indoors at Ford Field—where you know Martin can kick a consistent ball—certainly helps, too.
“We know that we can have kicks that are consistent and that’s always good for us,” Patricia said this week. “So certainly playing at home, we know from the conditions standpoint, that’s going to be consistent.”
With teams still adjusting to the new kickoff rules, it will be interesting to see if any other teams follow suit with Detroit. But for now, they seem to be the only ones particularly beholden to this strategy, and it hasn’t done them wrong yet.