Seven picks returned for scores? That's impressive

This past week in the NFL, two things happened that caused me to look a little deeper as to what might be going on around the league.

The Steelers started a game with an onside kick and we witnessed seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. Neither of those things happen that often and I thought we should look closer at both issues.

Can't-miss picks

1. Interceptions returned for touchdowns

The seven picks brought back for touchdowns in one weekend is off the charts, or is it a growing trend? In 2007, there were 52 interceptions returned for touchdowns. That equates to three per week across the board. In 2006, there were 49 interceptions that went to the end zone, or 2.8 per weekend. In 2005, there were 47 picks to reach pay dirt, or 2.7 per weekend.

Right now, after nine weeks of action, 31 interceptions have resulted in a touchdown, which is a rate of 3.4 per week which makes 2008 on track for 59 interceptions for a score. As you can see, there has been a steady rise in interception returns for points over the past four seasons. The question is why?

Some would say it is just cyclical, and that may be true, but when you dig down into the numbers it looks like interceptions for touchdowns should be going down, not up. After nine weeks of action NFL teams have thrown 8,387 passes and been picked off 226 times. The attempts are on pace for 15,842 for the season, which would be 1,203 less passes than last year (17,045) and less than 2006 (16,389) or 2005 (16,464). There were 534 interceptions in 2007, or 3.1 percent of the passes thrown. In 2006 there were 520 interceptions or 3.2 percent of the passes thrown. In 2005, there were 501 interceptions, which was 3.1 percent of the passes.

You would think that for teams to be on pace to surpass the number of interceptions for touchdowns -- which they are right now -- that the frequency of passes would be up and certainly the frequency of interceptions would be on the rise, but they are not at this point in the season.

I asked one retired secondary coach to look at the seven interceptions this past week and give me his assessment for the rise in scoring. He made a comment I agree with that may be a trend to watch for the rest of the season, "Defensive linemen are much more active in the pass coverage game than ever before."

Look at the growth of defensive linemen in coverage and scoring over the past few years.

The pass attempts are down, the interception rate is under 3 percent, but the defensive linemen are on pace for 10 interception returns for scores in 2008. Since 2001 defensive linemen have averaged three interception returns for touchdowns a season. The athletes are faster and more athletic and coaches aren't afraid to put them into coverage and I think that's why we are seeing a rise in interceptions for touchdowns.

2. The onside kick

The idea of a surprise onside kick, like we witnessed to open up Monday night's game when the Steelers tried and failed against the Redskins, perked my interest. How often do teams open a game with an onside kick? Is it a successful decision? How often do coaches use the onside kick in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter or is it just a ploy of desperation late in games?

The last time a team even tried an onside kick to open a game was 2003 when Andy Reid of the Eagles attempted it, and failed, against the Cowboys. Reid tried to surprise the Cowboys because he was he was successful in 2001 with the maneuver against the Kansas City Chiefs. The only other attempt to open a game with the onside kick was 2002 when the Saints tricked the Browns. In close to 1,900 opening kickoffs since 2001, it has only been tried a total four times. But there have been some other times that the onside kick is an interesting ploy.

I went back to 2001 through 2008, and investigated when is it a good time to try an onside kick, besides late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Keep in mind that NFL teams average about 60 onside kicks a year and the success rate of recovery of such kicks is about 21 percent. For example, this season there have already been 30 onside kicks and six have been recovered for a 20 percent success rate. We are on target to see 57 onside kicks this season. 22 of 77 onside kicks attempted last year were recovered by the kicking team. Coaches don't even like the two-point conversion, which has a success rate of close to 50 percent, so selling the idea of the onside kick when it isn't absolutely necessary is close to impossible considering the field position you give up if you fail. The Redskins weren't fooled by the Steelers and went right down and kicked a field goal off Monday night.

But if I were a special teams coach looking for the right time to onside kick and get my team an extra possession, my research says sell the head coach on the idea of the third quarter, especially opening up the second half of play. This year, a third-quarter onside kick has been attempted four times and recovered three of the four. A 75 percent success rate got my interest. I went back eight seasons and low and behold teams have recovered third-quarter onside kicks 24 of the 39 times they have attempted them, for a 61.5 percent success rate. A head coach might listen to a pitch that has that kind of probability. I asked two special teams coaches if they had an idea of why the third quarter was significantly different than any other time in a game.

One coach said, "Players have seen a few kickoffs from the first half and have been told to hustle to their landmarks for a better return and may bail early."

The other coach said, "there is usually a readiness for the opening kickoff of the game that may be missing in the second half especially if first half injuries to starters has put some of the special team players in the lineup and they lose their special teams concentration."

Finally, last year teams recovered six of eight third-quarter onside kicks, and when you combine that with the three of four this year, that's a 75 percent success rate. A head coach will listen to that piece of information.

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