- FREE AGENCY
By Murray McCormick,
The Saskatchewan Roughriders will be dealing with more than a new season Friday when they take to field against the Montreal Alouettes.
There are also a number of new rules that have been added to the CFL’s rule book for the 2007 season. The rules deal with more protection for players to improving the quality of the on-field product.
The changes will be particularly noticeable on special teams. The rule regarding blocking on kick returns has been clarified.
Blockers are once again allowed to block would-be-tacklers from the side. Last season, they were only allowed to block from the front, which resulted in a reduction of kickoffs returned for touchdowns. Only three kicks were returned for TDs in 2006 compared with 18 returned for majors in 2005. The blocking rule essentially returns to the one that was followed in 2005.
Alex Smith, the Riders special teams coach, knows he has to live with the blocking rule despite some reservations about players’ safety.
“In preseason, there have been a lot more dangerous blocks because of the four-sided approach,” Smith said Wednesday after the Riders completed their final practice before travelling today to Montreal.
“It’s hard when you’re running down the field at full speed and keeping an eye out for guys coming at you from the side. Someone can get earholed and that’s my major concern, but the rule is what it is and we have to deal with it.”
Punters also have to adjust their games while the league attempts to add more excitement to punt returns.
There are now penalties for punts sailing out of bounds between the 20-yard lines. The receiving team has the option of taking possession where the ball goes out of bounds or having a 10-yard penalty applied against the kicking team at the point of the last scrimmage with the down repeated. Balls bouncing out-of-bounds will not be penalized.
The rule forces teams to land punts in the field of play and increases the opportunities for punt returns.
“If I’m aiming my punts and kicking properly, it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Riders punter Jamie Boreham.
“More times than not, you’re not necessarily trying to kick the ball out of bounds between the 20s. Within the 20s, you can still go for the coffin corner. That’s good. They are just trying to get something going because there was a big drop-off last year.”
Some of the coaches instructed punters to kick the ball out-of-bounds to keep the football away from the league’s dangerous returners. The pressure is now on the special teams to keep the returners in check.
“Our guys are pretty fired up because they like going down the field and covering,” Boreham said.
“If I can kick the ball in the right spot, it’s easy for them to cover and they’re going to make the play.”
The league’s quarterbacks picked up some additional protection during the offseason. There is a ban on hits below or at the knees of a quarterback. Players are also banned from leading with their helmets while tackling quarterbacks. Both infractions carry a 15-yard major penalty and an automatic first down.
“It’s good to protect us back there,” said Riders quarterback Kerry Joseph.
“We’re vulnerable and we aren’t worried about protecting ourselves when we’re passing the ball. When you step into a throw, a guy can take your knee out. It’s good to have that rule in place and make a guy a little more cautious about that but we realize there is contact in football. I hope that it doesn’t take away from the game.”
Scott Schultz, the Riders veteran defensive tackle, said the new rules protecting the quarterback won’t force him to change his game. He’s going to keep rushing up the field as hard as he can to reach the quarterback.
“It’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that the league has put in place,” said Schultz. “We hear about these rules and we’re supposed to know what they are. But when you’re running full speed you don’t have time to change. You have to do what you do and that’s get to the quarterback.
“When you’re going after the quarterback, the object is to get him down. I’m looking to do that anyway I can and pay for the consequences afterwards.”
Some of the other notable rule changes are banning a snap down into a two- or three-point stance by an offensive lineman to eliminate a tactic to draw the defence offside; penalties for hitting players already on the ground and in a vulnerable position; and, penalties for making horse collar tackles by grabbing an opponent’s shoulder pads.
Kent Austin, the Riders head coach, was a member of the CFL’s rule committee that approved the changes.
“I’m always for protecting the quarterback,” said Austin, a former CFL quarterback. “During the season, there aren’t a lot of hits that are questionable. We’re just trying to police the ones that do happen.”
NOTES: WR Yo Murphy injured a finger on his left hand while attempting a reception on Wednesday. Yet Austin said the veteran may be left off the roster because Murphy may have re-injured a calf injury that has plagued him throughout the preseason … RB Wes Cates, who was acquired from the Calgary Stampeders on the weekend, isn’t expected to play Friday. Austin said Cates wasn’t ready … DB Lance Frazier, who suffered a deep thigh bruise on Monday after a collision with LB Kitwana Jones on Monday, was back on the field Wednesday. A decision on Frazier’s status is to be made before Friday’s kickoff ( 5:30 p.m., TSN).