While the Cincinnati Bengals entered the 2013 season with their offensive and defensive units mostly intact, the special teams continue to be a work in progress.
Last year’s team leader in special teams tackles, Dan Skuta, signed with San Francisco in the offseason. Jeromy Miles, the second-leading tackler, began the year injured and wound up being claimed by the Baltimore Ravens when the Bengals tried to slip him through waivers two weeks ago.
Emmanuel Lamur suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason finale, and Brian Leonard signed with Tampa Bay.
Losing all of that experience has forced special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons to cobble together his units with young players who are new to nuances of punt and kickoff coverage and returns, just as he did in 2010 when he took a raw group and shaped them into something special by last year.
“The past couple years it wasn’t a veteran group, but a group that had played together for a couple of years,” Simmons said. “These guys we are molding right now were that group in 2010. No question it makes it more difficult. It’s easier when you can pull a piece or two or it’s a new piece or two, but when it’s a whole bunch of pieces it makes it a little tougher.
“It is difficult, but those are the guys we have,” Simmons added. “They are going to be good enough. It’s going to take us a little bit of time. We will get there. The fortunate part is we are winning games. That’s the good thing.”
The punt units were especially strong last year, with the Bengals ranking 11th in the NFL in average yards per return (10.4) and sixth in average yards allowed (7.8).
Through five games this year, the Bengals are averaging 6.5 yards per return, which ranks 23rd, and allowing 9.8, which is 21st best.
But Simmons said he thinks the team is on the verge of a major upgrade in its return numbers now that the new guys are settling in and Adam Jones is back in the mix. The owner of five career punt return touchdowns, Jones had only returned two punts through the first four games due to an abdomen strain in additioin to a rash of injuries to other cornerbacks that made using him on special teams too big of a risk.
But with the secondary healing, Jones is back in the rotation with Brandon Tate. Jones returned two punts last week and should get a few more chances Sunday against a Buffalo squad that ranks 29th in the league.
“It felt good,” Jones said of his return to special teams Sunday against the Patriots. “Me and Darrin had miscommunication on one of them, but the other one we got was right there on me. I just have to stick it. Hopefully I l get better this week, get a little bit of room, see if I can wiggle through there.”
Simmons said even a veteran such as Jones is going to show signs of rust after taking a few weeks off.
“If you don’t do it for a long time, sometimes you’re flying a little bit by the seat of your pants,” Simmons said. “It’s not like the guy’s going to forget how to do it, but there comes a time when it’s a flow.The return game is a lot about timing. It’s getting to this spot at this time when this guy gets there and it’s not quite there yet.
“We’ve got a lot of moving parts,” Simmons continued. “Hopefully now we’re starting to get through some of those injuries and guys can settle in. Through the first five games, we were very unsettled as far as personnel.”
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