* Kevin Huber is having the best of his six seasons.*
The balance of the Bengals' NFL-leading special teams continues to see them through the rough spots and on Sunday in Houston they produced an invisible 140 yards in their latest field position domination that has put them in the top six of seven major kicking categories.
Their specialist carried the day against the Texans when Pro Bowl candidate Kevin Huber dropped four punts inside the 20 to cap off a torrid six-game stretch, another Pro Bowl candidate, Adam Jones, held on to the NFL kick return lead, and kicker Mike Nugent hammered four touchbacks to go along with his 49-yard field goal that iced the 22-13 victory with 1:55 left.
Maybe because Nugent chose not to ice himself and went to the sidelines to wait out the two-minute warning.
"It's something we hadn't really talked about but Mike stood out there on the field for the whole two-minute warning and iced himself and ended up missing a kick in the preseason game," recalled special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons Monday of the first game of the Green-Dalton era in Detroit in 2011 when Nugent went wide right from 42 yards.
"He's learned from that now. He went out on the field and stood on the field then jogged off and stood over on the sideline and waited for them to blow the whistle then when the ball is ready for play he runs back out there. I think the point is he is focusing more on the process rather than the result of the kick. He's focused more on his routine."
Since his routine betrayed him at the overtime gun from 36 yards away in the 37-37 tie to Carolina on Oct. 12, Nugent has hit eight straight and that includes Sunday's huge darts in the fourth quarter from 31 and 49.
"As the weeks have gone by there might be times where I'm warming up for a team period where I'm thinking I'm very close to the ball and this is why I pushed that one to the right," Nugent said. "That's one of those things that you have to really think about even if the ball is not dead-center. As long as it's in between the two you know you did your steps right.
"That's one of those things I've been talking a lot about how you can learn a lot from a loss, you can learn a lot from a win. The same thing with a made kick or a missed one. I was at a point where you really have to hone on the mistakes you're making before so much goes into a kick before you even kick it. There's a reason you do steps and if you're not doing the little things right, it's a game of inches."
Nugent also learned that his coaches and teammates weren't going to abandon him despite the heartbreak that stares at them every day in the form of their record, now 7-3-1. He's missed just one kick in practice during the last 36 days.
"I'm trying to learn as much as possible from that one because if you don't learn from it you might be one of those guys who it kind of defines your career," Nugent said.
In the wake of the miss he also received encouraging texts from Bengals all-time leading scorer Jim Breech, as well as former NFL veterans Olindo Mare and Jeff Wilkins that he became close to along the way.
"(Mare) just told me stories about how I've gone through rough patches and came back," Nugent said. "I think he had one in particular where he missed a couple in one game and I think he hit like the next 33 in a row or something like that. So it's one of those things like: Don't let it define you."
Nugent has had no time to wallow because everyone else on special teams is playing at such a high level. For instance, Huber leads the NFL with six punts downed inside the 5 in large part because of Simmons' productive three-gunner rotation featuring a first-rounder in Darqueze Dennard and a seventh-rounder James Wright, as well third-year veteran Dre Kirkpatrick.
NFL's TOP 10 IN COMPILATION OF SPECIAL TEAMS RANKINGS IN 10 MAJOR CATEGORIES
1-BENGALS (86); 2-Patriots (116); 3-Eagles (119); 4-Falcons (121); 5-Colts (123); 6-Ravens (125); 7-Bills (126); 8-Rams (127); 9-Cowboys (135); 10-Jets (157)
Playing in dome-like settings the last two weeks (the Texans opened the roof on Sunday), Nugent has concentrated on transferring his golf swing to his foot swing and has blasted nine touchbacks.
"Imagine a quarterback having to go 87 yards instead of 77," Nugent said. "It doesn't sound like a big difference, but it's so huge. When it adds up at the end of the game, I think we had a real big difference in starting field position yesterday, I think it added up 10 series at 140 yards in difference. It's funny how the numbers just add up over time."
That's the sound of Simmons' message getting through. In a compilation of the 10 major special teams rankings, the Bengals are the only team in double figures with 86. The second place team, New England, has 116.
But that's not what he's looking for when they hand him the stat sheet at the end of the game.
Simmons is looking for average drive start, a category they've won nine of 11 times. The Browns somehow beat them by only a yard despite three Andy Dalton interceptions and the Patriots recorded an eight-yard edge.
But in Houston, the Bengals average drive start was their 30 compared to the Texans 16. In the opener in Baltimore, it was an 11-yard pad, computing to 132 hidden yards in a one-score win.
"You look at that New Orleans game. There are only 15 total possessions in the game," Simmons said. "A five-yard difference is a huge difference when you're talking about the game. Even a five-yard difference in eight possessions. That's a big gap…I know when it's a 14-yard difference you should never lose any of those games ever."
Huber, the sixth-year punter, has been absolutely huge. He's inches away from leading the NFL in net average (44.4 to Pat McAffee's 44.7) and his 23 punts inside the 20 are tied for second. Simmons says it is Pro Bowl caliber stuff, particularly what he's done in the last six games.
Working in three domes in that stretch, Huber is averaging 49.8 yards on 33 punts and his net has ranged from a low of 42 to a high of 47.7 while pumping 14 inside the 20 with three touchbacks.
In order for Huber to be the first Bengals punter to go to a Pro Bowl, Simmons says he's got to keep his rankings near the lead.
"He has to be close. When these guys look at this stuff, they look at numbers," said Simmons of a vote split between fans, coaches, and players." Same with returners. It's not necessarily how they impact the game one way or the other. They don't know the whole story. I don't think a lot of people who do the voting know the whole story.
"They don't know the efficiency Kevin has had putting balls inside the 20. I think the good players and coaches recognize it. They'll see what his inside the 20-touchback ratio has been and the effectiveness of where we punt. We play outdoors in a tougher weather environment than most other places. I think you can see whenever we've had the opportunity to punt in a dome, we've taken advantage of that when we've played. I'm not taking anything away from (the Colts') Pat McAfee. I think he's a heck of a player and he deserves to go. But it's nice to play several games in a dome. That helps, but (McAfee) has had a good year. He's a had a good year and he's had a hell of a year, but I think he'd be the first to tell you it's a hell of a lot different when you play in Cincinnati eight games a year rather than in Indy."
If Huber has to stay close to the lead to go to the Pro Bowl, Simmons thinks Adam Jones has to pop a touchdown on either a kick or punt. First in kicks and fourth in punts, Jones has the numbers, Simmons said. The problem is, Jones is playing 70 percent of the snaps on defense, so they have to back him off in the return game.
"I think the numbers show that. I don't know where he is at exactly but I think the numbers show that," said Simmons of his Pro Bowl credentials. "I know he's had a limited number of touches in some regard, I think he's got to score to make it…. In a selfish way for us I want him to be fresher for the return game because I think he's such a dynamic guy and still is a dynamic guy. He has the feel and elusiveness you can't coach. That's got to continue. We've got to continue."
It was only two years ago when the Bengals also led the league in the 10 major kicking categories and Jones and Huber helped. But Jones wasn't returning kickoffs and the Bengals have three new gunners that make up a revamped core of cover players. Running back Cedric Peerman is the only tackler currently in the top five who finished in the top five in Bengals teams tackles in 2012.
"I think we were really good (in '12). I think this group is comparable," Simmons said. " Our gunners have done a fantastic job, we have a good rotation of three guys. As one of their role changes it could be on a week to week basis. We make it hard to prepare for just having two guys in there because we have a rotation of three and they are all three playing good. I think they are all three in the top four of tackles on our team."