Bengals hope to be special in special game

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           Carlos Dunlap has blocked two field goals in the last two road games.

Two defenses giving up an average of 36 points per game between them. Two quarterbacks with a combined six NFL starts between them. A game deciding the fate of the bulk of the AFC play-off picture.

Yes, special teams are going to loom larger than the Rockies Monday night (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) when the 11-3 Bengals try to wrap up a play-off bye and the AFC North title in one fell swoop against the 10-4 Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. If this isn't a game that calls for an unconventional score, what is?

Don't just daydream about defensive touchdowns with special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons finishing up his 13th season with another solid effort. But his main goal is to win field position.

"It's always hard to determine how a game is going to go," Simmons says. "You never really know, especially in a place like Denver where the altitude is lighter and the ball reacts differently."

Although the Bengals special teams stats are nowhere near last year's point-out-of-first-place finish, add up their current rankings in the top ten major categories and they have the best overall number of any of the six AFC teams projected to make the playoffs:

Bengals (146), Chiefs (148), Steelers (155), Patriots (156), Broncos (170), Texans (188).

With incumbent All Pro punt returner Adam Jones nursing a sprained foot and not returning a ball for a month, the return numbers are down. But incumbent Pro Bowl punter Kevin Huber, along with kicker Mike Nugent and their cover teams continue to hold the fort on the golden turf of field position.

And don't look now, but it looks like Jones is back to at least occasionally try to break one. He lined up to return punts early in last Sunday's game and took one four yards. When he didn't even touch the ball, his sudden presence no doubt jarred an 18-yard shank that set up a touchdown.

 The Bengals are sixth in net punt average against and are 10th covering punts. With the help of Nugent's 40 touchbacks (tied for 12th in the NFL), they are tied for first in the league with Buffalo in holding teams on kickoffs to an average drive start at the 19.9.

And they take it seriously. They made a move during the week for more experience when they cut rookie cornerback Troy Hill and replaced him with veteran cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris for his work on both teams and at corner. The Patriots grabbed Hill off waivers after he had three special teams tackles in three games.

 But Lewis-Harris has played 17 NFL games and gives some ballast to a kick cover team that had five rookies last week. There were four lined up next to each other in Hill, cornerback Josh Shaw, linebacker P.J. Dawson, and safety Derron Smith, with tight end C.J. Uzomah lined up on the other side.

Throw in the tag team of the Twin Towers on the field- goal block team, 6-6 left end Carlos Dunlap and 6-8 right end Margus Hunt, and the danger has now spread with two blocks in the last three games.

Dunlap got them both and last week's huge block of 49ers kicker Phil Dawson's 41-yard field goal try came in handy at the end, when San Francisco was throwing to the end zone down by just ten. It also won Dunlap AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, the first Bengal not a kicker or returner to win it.

It's a hard, solid season of anonymous work that holds the higher ground against their projected post-season foes. The capper came earlier this week when running back Cedric Peerman became Simmons' most highly decorated cover player during his years in Cincinnati when he was named a first alternate Pro Bowler.

"I think he should have got in," Simmons says. "I got a couple of text messages from coaches who voted for him and they thought he got screwed. He gets double-teamed all the time on kickoffs and he still makes plays. Plus, it opens up for other guys.

"Guys like Carlos and Ced are role players on special teams and that's what good teams have to have. They take it seriously. It means something to them. And it impacts games."

Take last week's field-goal block.

"I'm damn glad we got those three points back," Simmons says.

After the game, Dunlap tipped his hat to Hunt, the college shot blocker who left SMU with 17 blocked kicks and lines up next to him.

  "I've been giving him tips for three years now and he's finally been able to capitalize," says Hunt with tongue firmly in cheek. "He's been able to get his long, skinny arms in way of the ball."

Seriously, there is a method to the madness.

"Effort. You have to have effort. You have to be taken seriously on that kind of play," Hunt says. "That was the key for me and Carlos. People have to take us seriously that we're in there to block the kicks. Whether it's a field goal or PAT."

The length in the middle of the line is a boon for Simmons. He can use one as the set-up man and one as the closer. As Dunlap says, they have to choose to block one or the other. That's how he got both of them. They went after Hunt. And Hunt says he would have got there if Dunlap didn't.

"Either one of us is capable of coming clean," Hunt says. "I was scot-free on one PAT (against the 49ers). I got clamped down by the guard, so I really couldn't keep going. One thing affects the other. We have a thing going off lining up next to each other. It's a different situation for the field-goal team to figure out what's going on and be solid in protection. If we're always going 100 percent, always going all out, we'll have a chance to be in the way of the ball."

Hunt is still waiting for his first NFL field goal block. "We're trying to get him off the doughnut," Simmons says.

"Last year I had two or three opportunities. I wasn't able to finish," Hunt says. "I've been close on multiple other ones."

On Monday night, it probably takes only one.

 
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