11-13-03, 10:10 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The big names this week are the names at the bottom of the Bengals' salary-cap list, but they are the key to stopping the Chiefs mega million special teams and may very well decide what is the biggest game in the four seasons of Paul Brown Stadium.
Guys like Kevin Walter, Marquand Manuel, Reggie Myles, Kevin Kaesviharn, kicker Shayne Graham, and punter Kyle Richardson all have to be on the same wavelength to short-circuit Kansas City's electrifying Dante Hall.
He doesn't have the NFL's best kick return average or best punt return average. But put together the 5-8, 190-pound Hall's 21 yards per punt, 27.5 per kick, and two touchdowns on each, and Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil doesn't bat an eye in saying Hall is the best return man he's ever seen.
"As long as we keep him healthy, I think he has a shot to do one or two more," Vermeil said Wednesday.
The Bengals just hope it's not Sunday.
"We can't get in the mode where we're watching him," said Kaesviharn, the defensive back who is probably going to be one of the kick contain men.
Or, as Walter says, don't be fooled when you are watching him.
"You have to keep going because when you think he's tackled with five guys around him and you think the play is over, he'll squirt around and come out of that hole," said Walter, the rookie receiver who is one of the gunners on the punt cover team.
If the past nine games are any indication, Hall could bend the Bengals but may not break them, and that means something more than lip service to a franchise that has been hobbled by special teams play bordering on the inexplicable. They haven't allowed a return this season after giving up four last season and five in the past two.
And despite the shaky effort on kickoffs last week when Houston's J.J. Moses took the air out of PBS with 186 yards on seven tries, the Bengals are in the top half of the AFC when it comes to their foes' drive starts on kickoffs. They are seventh at 27.2, slightly better than the conference average of 27.8.
"Not good enough," said Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons. "But we know we can do it and we have to know exactly what we have to do Sunday. We've got to be sound, aggressive, and smart, and make sure we've got people surrounding him."
But there is adversity. Simmons says one of the reasons Moses had a big day is that he had three players in new positions, which can happen easily when you had two defensive backs down in Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins. Burris is out again this week and Hawkins is questionable, meaning, like last week, Kaesviharn is probably going to be doing double duty.
But Simmons is insisting his guys play with confidence. Moses isn't a hack. He came in averaging about 24 yards per kick and hit 26.6 against the Bengals. And the week they played Arizona, they held the Cardinals to the 19-yard line during a point in the season the Cards had an average drive start at around the 30.
Yet, everyone knows they have to play better than they did against Houston. Walter, who played all special teams while racking up receiving records at Eastern Michigan and has been a solid performer since the Bengals activated him last month covering punts and kicks, forced two Arizona penalties two weeks ago. But he knows Hall is a different deal.
"This is the first time I've ever played gunner and I love it," Walter said. "He's got great vision, great moves and he makes a lot of people miss. We've got to be in control and where we're supposed to be. Play in our lanes and gang tackle the guy. He definitely will break tackles."
Kaesviharn thinks Hall's strength is exactly that. The power he has in his small frame.
"He's got good vision. A couple of times on tape he's running laterally to the right, but looking back to the left. He's just trying to find a crease he can hit and get it up the field. We have to gang tackle him, get guys around him. It's going to be tough to run through 11 guys, but we have to make sure we wrap him when we make the tackle."
Punt long-snapper Brad St. Louis is worried about Hall's low center of gravity and says the Bengals have to rely on their fundamentals to stop the flash. They are 13th in the league covering punts and 18th covering kicks and are striving for consistency, as is Graham.
He started the second half last week drilling a kick to the Houston 1 and it was covered at the 17. Then in the fourth quarter, he hit one to the 9 and it got returned 30 yards.
"Obviously you're trying to get hang time and distance on the ball against him and I'm trying to focus more and concentrate on getting consistency," Graham said. "Some teams have tried squibs or popping the ball up against him. But you automatically give up field position that way. You might save a touchdown, but even that, with the talent the guy has, he can still break one because your guys don't have a chance to go down and cover the ball."
So, does that mean the Bengals kick to him? Do they directionally punt, whack it out of bounds, what? Teams have tried pretty much everything against Hall and it hasn't helped.
"Can't say," Simmons said. "Strategy. Can't talk about strategy."
"We'll have a game plan," Richardson said. "You can't play scared. The best way to neutralize him is hang time, but we'll see what happens."
As the first official special teams coach in the NFL for the Rams in 1969, Vermeil saw head coach George Allen trade for punt returner Alvin Haymond. Thirty years later, kick returner Tony Horne helped Vermeil's Rams to the Super Bowl.
The most exciting players in football have been huge factors down through the years. Simmons watched Eric Metcalf will the 1994 Cleveland Browns into the postseason. Richardson saw his Ravens break the back of a bunch of teams under the feet of Jermaine Lewis on the way to winning the Super Bowl.
"I like Jermaine Lewis. I'm glad I didn't have to kick to him," Richardson said. "This guy is tremendous. Guys get hot and this guy is hot. You get two or three guys blocked, some teams playing back on their heels, and playing scared, and things can happen for you like is happening now for Dante Hall."
When Vermeil arrived in Kansas City in 2001, he moved Hall, a college running back, to wide receiver. He reminded Vermeil of Az Hakim, a playmaker the Bengals remember from the last time they played a Vermeil team in 1999 and Hakim scored one of his four touchdowns on a punt in the Rams' 38-10 victory.
"(Hakim was a) great quickness guy, a great open-field player, and I thought (Hall) had the same potential," Vermeil said. "But (Hall) was a little stronger and had more sure hands in terms of fielding and punts and kickoffs, and more secure with the ball after. Plus, he had already been trained as a running back in college. So I thought the blend of all those attributes, he would end up being very good. Could I predict he'd go four? No, but I would have predicted two or three."
Vermeil has been on the ground floor of special teams development in the NFL, but for him, the biggest change hasn't really been a change. He says one of the biggest differences from 1969 is the time coaches spend on it in practice, but the Chiefs spend as much time as the '69 Rams because Allen always made it a high priority.
"No. 1 is the coaches' emphasis on putting skilled athletes on the field to make open-field plays," Vermeil said. "Everybody has a returner. They all do a better job if it. The big thing is the time spent on the kicking game now in contrast to 1969."
Thanks to Hall, the Bengals are going overtime in the 10th week of 2003.