Bengals kick into second half

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Adam Jones is always a threat no matter how he gets his hand on the ball.

After playing half their games, the Bengals not only lead the NFL in special teams, they are crushing it when it comes to the league's ten major categories in the kicking game.

Add the Bengals combined rankings in punt and kick return, gross and net punt average, and field goal percentage for and against and they are the only team in the league in double figures at 87 as they prepare to display their wares in Thursday night's game (8:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and NFL Network) for first place in the AFC North against Cleveland.

Without the stats from the Monday night game, Philadelphia weighs in at 102 and the Ravens team the Bengals have swept is third at 111. The Colts team that blanked them is fourth at 116 and the Patriots team that beat them handily on the road is fifth at 122. The top ten rounds out with Buffalo (128), St. Louis (133), Detroit (134), Dallas (139) and Green Bay (147).

The top ten is littered with division leaders (Bengals, Eagles, Colts, Patriots, Lions) and the only losing team in the top ten is the 3-5 Rams. Last year's Super Bowl participants, the Seahawks (221) and the Broncos (224) are the bottom two in the league even though Denver leads the AFC West and Seattle is 5-3.

It is no contest when it comes to the four games left in the AFC North against the Browns (155) and Steelers (218).

"When your specialists are playing well, your returners,  punter, kicker,  if they're doing well, it makes everybody else's job easier because they feed off of them," said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons after Monday's late afternoon walk-through.

" If we kick it good, they cover it good. If we don't kick it good, they don't cover good. If we return it good , it makes everybody's job blocking that much easier. Or if we come after him on a rush, it makes it that much easier. They know they have to get out into coverage. When your specialists are playing at a high level that makes everybody else's job easier, too."

And so the Bengals are riding Adam Jones' bid to become the first man in 23 years to lead the NFL in both kick and punt returns and Kevin Huber's career year that has him second in the league in net average per punt at 44.1 yards.

Aiding the specialists is a nice brew of rookies and veterans. They went into last Sunday's game led  in tackles by veteran Cedric Peerman and rookie Darqueze Dennard. Simmons has also had to juggle with the slew of injuries at linebacker. Special teams co-captain Vincent Rey has yet to cover a kickoff this season and when middle linebacker Nico Johnson arrived fresh off the Kansas City practice squad three weeks ago and immediately responded with three tackles in his first two games, more injuries forced Simmons to take him off teams last Sunday when he started.

"That's the biggest stat you want to have," said Huber, trailing only the Colts' Pat McAfee with 44.9 net. "Gross doesn't mean anything. You could have a 60-yard gross, but if the returner goers for a touchdown, it doesn't matter."

With the help of gunners Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick, and James Wright, Huber has just two touchbacks while pumping 16 inside the 20 as the Bengals lead the league in both gross and net punt average against. Wright, a seventh-round wide receiver,  replaced on Sunday the injured Dennard, a first-round cornerback. Simmons has had no trouble going to the pair of rookies. Indeed, he wishes he could get both of them on the field at the same time.

"The great part about  it is we've got multiple guys that can do that. We've got Darqueze in there, and then Darqueze gets dinged so we go with James," Simmons said.  "You're only as good as your 53rd player. Right now where we're at, in years past I might have been holding my breath covering punts with backup gunners. But I feel good about putting all of gunners in there. It's just a matter of guys like James getting opportunities to play. "

 Kirkpatrick, the first-round corner from 2012, has seized the day at gunner and is showing people he has the potential to be a Pro Bowl special teamer. At 6-2, he's lean, quick and his long arms make him a puzzle to block. During a dangerous lull in the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Jaguars, Kirkpatrick brought the crowd to its feet when he dropped punt returner Ace Sanders at the Jags 10 for a one-yard loss.

"He's playing fast. He's hitting his stride right now where he's getting out quick, making a good move off the line," Huber said. "He's naturally fast. He's got the ability once he gets a step on a guy, they have no chance to get him.

"He's taking pride in his special teams play. He knows how important that is to a team. I think he's taken that to heart and putting everything he can into it."

Huber, in his sixth season, is as modest as they come. While you have to tear it out of him that he's having a career year ("Numbers-wise they are probably up there this point in the year as good as I've had"),  he says his cover team has covered up his inconsistent directional kicking toward the sideline.

"That's one thing this year I've been struggling with is getting better direction," Huber said. "It's something we've been working on for whatever reason it's not a philosophy change it's just me not having as good a year directional punting as I did last year…I didn't change from last year, just the hits I've had haven't been going as good directionally toward the sideline as I have wanted. The guys are doing a great job covering. So they are making up for me right now."

If anybody can give a scouting report on Adam Jones, it is Huber after six years of kicking to the best. Right now, Jones is the best at 15.8 yards per punt return, good for a .4 lead on the Eagles' Darren Sproles.

" I'm just glad he's on our team and not a team we have to play," Huber said. "Adam is making the punting team scared to punt  to him. It's forcing them to have bad hits and when they do punt us the ball, we're making them pay. He's doing a great job in there and the return team is doing a great job getting guys blocked up to give them the ability to make plays.

"He runs with a purpose. He's fearless. He's just got good knack for finding the hole, hitting the hole hard, avoiding tacklers. He's a shifty guy. He's always been like that. He can make guys miss. That's the big thing with punt return. There are always going to be one or two guys you have to make miss and he's able to make those guys miss."

Plus, he's leading the league in kick returns with the bare minimum 10 kicks to qualify at 32.8, nearly a full yard more than Baltimore's Jacoby Jones. Because Adam Jones is a regular cornerback playing about 70 percent of the snaps, his returns are monitored. He may end up with the numbers but not the attempts to qualify.

"He's earned more shots. Situations dictate sometimes we put him in there," Simmons said. "I probably should have put him in there a little earlier on kickoff returns. I needed to feel confident how he was going to react to what he was going to do when he was in there. It just so happened to go down the same time Marvin  Jones we thought we would get him back and when we lost him that means Brandon Tate's offense got elevated, so we had to back him down a little bit, too. So it kind of worked hand in hand." 

Adam Jones is totally unimpressed with the fact that he could become the first man since Detroit's Mel Gray in 1991 to pull off the daily double.

"It's still early in the season. Still early," Jones said Monday. "Game by game. We'll see how it goes."

That kind of mirrors Jones' philosophy on both kicks and punts.

"Hit it," he said.

And go. It doesn't always mesh with the meticulous Simmons.

"Attention to detail is Darrin Simmons to a T," Huber said. "Detail-oriented. Expect nothing but perfection. 

"He's hard on guys but you need to be. Some guys don't take that the right way they don't belong here. All the guys we have here they know he's going to be hard on them so if they screw up they take it and they say I don't want them to be hard on me so I do my job and be perfect. "

The superstitious Simmons can't like this attention to their high ranking. But you get the sense he's enjoying it in a very small way and thinking of ways to use it to his advantage.

"To be honest, we're one play away from everything going south," Simmons said. "You're trying to put your finger in the dike. We're also one play away from going up to first . That's how I have to look at it, too. That's the optimism we have to have. Instead of always waiting for bad things to happen. You have to look for good things to happen, too. You have to understand what their mentality is , too, on the other side. When they look across the field, I have to think what they see they're up against."

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