Bengals proud of special teams play

Cincinnati Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons was pleased with how his players stepped up against the top special teams unit in the league on Sunday.

The Bengals dominated punt coverage, holding league-leading return man Jakeem Grant to eight yards on four returns, though the attention went to one he muffed and one he didn’t even get a chance to field because of back-to-back hits by Mike Thomas.

“I was proud the way that our guys responded,” Simmons said Monday. “Anytime your punter can average 49.5 (yards) and we come out of the game netting 48.2 against the No. 1 punt returner in the league, that’s a good thing for us.”

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Cincinnati was using backup gunners for most of the game, after Brandon Wilson re-aggravated a hamstring injury that had limited him throughout the week in practice. He stopped Grant, who averages 14 yards per return, on just a two-yard pickup after Kevin Huber’s first punt.

Cornerback Tony Brown normally could fill a role but is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, so Stanley Morgan and Thomas stepped in.

“Mike Thomas has played gunner his whole career; he just hasn’t done it with us yet,” Simmons said. “He was the starting gunner and played 61 snaps at gunner for the Rams last year. So it’s not like he’s never played the position before. He knows exactly what to do in those plays. It’s not his first rodeo doing this stuff.”

The time away from doing it in games might have impacted his timing on the second hit he made on Grant, when he got to him early and knocked him down a tick or two before the ball even got there. The play ultimately led to 20 minutes of chaos and three ejections.

Safety Shawn Williams, who had been knocked down on a blindside block during the play, shoved DeVante Parker in the head during the incident, Parker responded with punches and both benches cleared. Miami’s Mack Hollins joined in to defend Parker by throwing his own punches as well, and all three were ejected.

The NFL was looking at the incident for fines but ended up suspending Williams for one game without pay for an unrelated incident when he stepped on the ankle of Dolphins offensive lineman Solomon Kindley during the second quarter.

Taylor defended Thomas on Monday, saying he had no ill-will.

“You’ve got to really look at the situation he was in,” Taylor said. “Mike is trying to make a play, and when you’re a gunner running full speed down the field and the returner starts to put his hands up, you have no idea where the ball’s at. So you have to assume it’s close proximity, kind of like the first one he had. Again again, you’ve got to put your head across his body and make sure you’re not making contact with your helmet to his helmet. It’s tough. You’ve got to make a split-second decision. And there’s a chance that ball’s going to drop right before, like the first one did. And he’s making a great hit. If you feel like you’re getting there too soon, you’ve got to be able to break down and wait until you see him touch the ball. But again, Mike was just trying to play fast. He’s not trying to injure anybody. He got there a tick to soon. That’s obvious. But again, that’s part of playing gunner. Mike’s got great speed and he beats the corner right off the snap and got there probably sooner than most guys would get there, and that was part of the problem.”

The early hit, which was flagged for kick catch interference, might have seemed worse because Thomas had just been penalized for unnecessary roughness on the previous return. Taylor and Simmons thought that one was legal, though.

“I’m a part of some of these committees that meet at the combine and we discuss this year about adding defenseless player protections and giving that to punt returners,” Simmons said. “Our guys have been educated on the rule. … A hit to a defenseless punt returner there’s some type of helmet-to-helmet contact or there’s a hit to the head of the punt returner, which there was not in this case. Mike hit him with his shoulder in the chest of his returner. It’s a bang-bang play. The returner had full opportunity to catch the ball. The ball actually went through his hands and hit the ground about the same time Mike made contact. So, he had ample opportunity to catch it. Mike made a clean hit. I disagree with the call that was made on the first one.”

Simmons sounded more concerned with kicker Randy Bullock’s recent woes. In the last three games, Bullock has missed three of five field goals and an extra-point attempt. He’s at 80.8 percent on field goals this year, marking his lowest percentage in five seasons with Cincinnati.

The Bengals have Austin Seibert on the roster as well but he’s been inactive for all 11 games since he was claimed off waivers following the opener.

“We have to make certain plays and he didn’t make it there so certainly I have concern. I think we’re at a point with our team where we have to make every one of them,” Simmons said. “We can’t afford to miss or not be effective. We have to execute on all of them. Certainly any time we miss it’s an issue, so I have concern for that. We’re on a bit of a downward trend here. In two of the last three games we’ve missed four kicks. Anytime we miss it’s certainly a concern.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Cowboys at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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