Sunday's special teams showdown in South Florida turned out to be more than advertised when the No. 6 Bengals held the No. 1 Dolphins to a draw and maybe even a win considering how they dominated punt coverage against the NFL leader.
Not to mention the highlights.
While Cincinnati stuffed league-leader Jakeem Grant, Sr., Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders hit all four of his field goals to counter Randy Bullock's 53-yard miss at the end of the half that swung the momentum to Miami in its 19-7 victory.
"I was proud the way that our guys responded," Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons reflected Monday in a conference call with reporters. "Anytime your punter can average 49.5 (yards) and we come out of the game netting 48.2 against the No. 1 punt returner in the league, that's a good thing for us."
And they did it, for the most part, with backup gunners. Cornerback Tony Brown is on injured reserve after hurting his hamstring in the middle of last week's game against the Giants and safety Brandon Wilson, who dropped Grant in his tracks on Kevin Huber's first punt in Miami, had to leave soon after when he re-aggravated his hamstring.
Grant, averaging nearly 14 yards per return, had just a total of eight yards in four tries and the Bengals even forced him to make his seventh fair catch of the season. As the last man to return a punt for a touchdown against the Bengals back in 2018, Grant had Simmons' microscopic attention during the week.
"We knew how effective (Grant is) and I know the level of respect I have for him as a returner," Simmons said. "It's off the chart. He's quick, he's fast, he's explosive. Obviously you can see he's fearless. He'll bring back any ball."
That was the problem.
It was Grant's penchant to not call fair catches that sparked the chaotic series of flags, invisible flags and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores' march on the Bengals sideline with about 12 minutes left in the game.
With the Bengals' new gunners (wide receivers Mike Thomas and Stanley Morgan, Jr.) continually beating the Dolphins blockers down field, Grant always had someone in his face as he tried to catch it. Earlier in the second half, Thomas levelled Grant on what his coaches said was a perfectly legal hit despite the officials calling him for unnecessary roughness.
Simmons, the longest tenured teams coach in the league and one of a select few teams coaches that meets to discuss rules at the scouting combine, said Thomas' hit was textbook and head coach Zac Taylor even had the date (Aug. 11) the league sent out a video on how to do it and he says Thomas did it.
"We discussed this year about adding defenseless player protections and giving that to punt returners. Our guys have been educated on the rule," Simmons said. "A hit to a defenseless punt returner, there's some type of helmet-to-helmet contact or there's a hit to the head of the punt returner, which there was not in this case. Mike hit him with his shoulder in the chest of his returner. It's a bang-bang play. The returner had full opportunity to catch the ball. The ball actually went through his hands and hit the ground about the same time Mike made contact. So he had ample opportunity to catch it. Mike made a clean hit. I disagree with the call that was made on the first one."
Simmons does agree that Thomas deserved the second flag for hitting Grant, the one that led to three ejections and Flores saying he shouldn't have lost his poise.
"I was part of this conversation at the combine. The punt returner always has control of the play," Simmons said. "If he wants to signal fair catch he can control the safety of the play for himself by calling a fair catch. That's why they have put that rule in place. There are certain advantages for sure not to signal a fair catch. But if you don't, you run the risk getting run into by a gunner, getting run into by one of your own players. Getting shoved into."
Thomas might have been early, but Simmons said he was far from cheap. He thought Thomas played well, since he was pulled off the bench and pressed into service for the first time this year.
"He still played the technique correctly, meaning he got his head out of the play. He hit the returner in the chest with his shoulder, which is exactly what he's taught to do. He just got there a little early," Simmons said. "Stanley is obviously a guy who's played a lot of snaps for us a year ago. He played in the Pittsburgh game. He's somebody I have a great deal of confidence in. I've made no secret about that.
"Mike Thomas has played gunner is whole career. He just hasn't done it with us yet. He was the starting gunner and played 61 snaps at gunner for the Rams last year. So it's not like he's never played the position before. He knows exactly what to do in those plays. It's not his first rodeo doing this stuff."
Taylor watched Thomas work in Los Angeles and he vociferously defended Thomas in his media Zoom call Monday. Textbook on the first hit. All-out on the second. And that's all.
"You've got to make a split-second decision. And there's a chance that ball's going to drop right before, like the first one did. And he's making a great hit," Taylor said. "If you feel like you're getting there too soon, you've got to be able to break down and wait until you see him touch the ball. But again, Mike was just trying to play fast. He's not trying to injure anybody. He got there a tick to soon. That's obvious. But again, that's part of playing gunner. Mike's got great speed and he beats the corner right off the snap and got there probably sooner than most guys would get there, and that was part of the problem."
Simmons sounds like he's taking a look at Bullock's recent woes. Three weeks ago he was 19 of 21 and had moved into the top spot in Bengals' all-time accuracy. About a month ago he was leading the NFL in scoring. But in the last three games he's missed three of five (from 34, 58 and 53) and an extra point and is back in second place at 84.9 percent on Bengals field goals. At 80.8 percent this year, it's the lowest of his five Cincinnati seasons.
When Bullock got hurt in the opener, they claimed Austin Seibert and kept him on the roster, where he's been inactive for all 11 games he's been here.
"We have to make certain plays and he didn't make it there so certainly I have concern. I think we're at a point with our team where we have to make every one of them," Simmons said. "We can't afford to miss or not be effective. We have to execute on all of them. Certainly any time we miss it's an issue, so I have concern for that. We're on a bit of a downward trend here. In two of the last three games we've missed four kicks. Anytime we miss it's certainly a concern."
FLAG HANGOVER: The Bengals clearly weren't happy with the way Sunday's game was not only officiated, but also with the ensuing explanations. Then on Monday night it was reported that safety Shawn Williams was suspended for one game for stepping on Dolphins guard Solomon Kindley after a play late in the first half. And that was a weird play, too, with the 340-pound Kindley flying into the pile late.
Plus, it was the same day they hit Titans defensive end Teair Tart for the same thing after not suspending anyone for years for such an offense, according to profootballtalk.com.
It appeared inadvertent with Williams getting caught up in the pile caused by Kindley. But it was clearly a rough day for him.
On the play that came just before he was ejected with 12 minutes left, Williams got drilled on a blind-side block on a punt, got stalked by a couple of Dolphins as he lay on the ground on the Bengals sideline. Then when he got up there was Flores and the rest of the team coming at them. No good could come of that and Williams and Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker were gone when they exchanged punches.
Not only that, when Bengals trainer Nick Cosgray attended to Williams and tried to get him back to the bench to see if he was hurt, Cosgray got engulfed in the fray, somehow hit the ground and was rescued by Sam Hubbard and Khalid Kareem before he got trampled.
No, the Bengals aren't happy.
"Nick's OK. We had a player hit on a blindside block there. There was no flag thrown whatsoever," Taylor said. "So Shawn gets up and he's got an entire team on top of him. Nick will be fine. Shawn will be fine. But that was a tough situation."
The problem is, they couldn't find flags. That's what Taylor objected to when wide receiver Tyler Boyd was not only ejected for exchanging slaps with cornerback Xavien Howard, but got hit with a 15-yard penalty, too, even though he was assaulted way out of bounds by two defensive backs and ended up taken down by a cameraman when he got shoved into him. Howard got tossed, too, but without a flag.
The NFL said after the game that New York couldn't add a penalty after reviewing the play. But was there even one flag on Boyd?
"There's a lot of things I didn't like. I thought TB got hit late out of bounds to start the whole thing and did not throw the first punch, and yet he's the one that got penalized and they both got ejected," Taylor said. "And that's very frustrating when you're standing right there watching the whole situation along with everybody else and we take the brunt of it. But what the rule is, they (New York) cannot put a flag on the field. They can eject players, but they cannot put a flag on the field. So they said that, even though I never saw it, that there was a flag dropped on Tyler Boyd. So they cannot got back. I know that the rule is that New York cannot go back and put another flag on the field. They can only make an ejection."
And then, where was the flag when Williams got blindsided on the ill-fated punt?
"There were a couple times I never saw a flag and there was a penalty after the fact," Taylor said, referring to the shot on Williams. "But the bottom line is we have to play better. We have to control the things that we can control and we've got to find ways to put points on the board and we did not do that yesterday. And that's on all of us as players and coaches."
Let Simmons have the final say. After all, he's always the guy that deals with the league office every week about the Bengals' disputed calls from the day before.
"There was certainly an incident with Tyler on the sideline. Did it rise to the level of ejecting a couple of guys? I think we see a lot of pushing and shoving in games," Simmons said. "It got heightened there. I think obviously the first hit Mike put on there and because it was called a foul, everybody thinks Mike cheap-shot-ted a guy, which he did not. It's a good, clean football play. Certainly the second one is one he'd like to have back. He's there too early. The combination of all those things, the emotions certainly got heightened and I don't think any team is proud to be a part of."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Taylor had no update on left tackle Jonah Williams' knee injury. It's believed, at least initially, that he didn't tear a ligament. But even a sprain might end his season.
It was a tough day for the offensive line. Williams got hurt on one of the seven sacks allowed when two others rushers mauled him while he was blocking on Shaq Lawson. And left guard Michael Jordan got pulled for the last series in favor of Xavier Su'a-Filo. That came a week after Jordan was benched for the Giants game and Taylor didn't give an indication what's next up front.
"We had to look at some things on that last drive. (Jordan) had given up a couple pressures and sacks there, and it was time to do something different," Taylor said. "Obviously with Xavier coming off IR and practicing the last couple weeks, we felt like it was right to go with Michael Jordan. Then Mike, obviously we pulled him on that last drive and put Xavier back in there. That's one of those tough decisions we've got to make with the guards, really with a lot of the offensive linemen we've got. Guys get hurt, guys come back. I'm shuffling through all that, trying to find the right chemistry amongst five guys. It has not been an easy task. Every week it seems like it's a new group out there working together. That's a challenge, and it's something we're going to have to keep working through this week.
Now it looks like their sixth straight different starting offensive line against the Cowboys this Sunday could very well have Su'a-Filo at right guard and Quinton Spain at left guard next to rookie left tackle Hakeem Adeniji.
It sounds like quarterback Brandon Allen can play if they go that way after he left midway through the fourth quarter after he took a shot to the chest.
"He's doing much better. He had a really bad, wind knocked out of him situation," Taylor said. "I was kind of standing there the whole time with him and sometimes the deal is you get your wind back in 30-45 seconds, and this one just took much longer. He was really struggling there. But other than just general soreness, he'll be OK."