The week of a Bengals-Ravens game always used to bring out more trash-talking to the curb than a holiday pickup, but not so now. As the Ravens got older and the Bengals said goodbye to some thespians, it has become a respectful give-and-take.
One of the dangerous Ravens pass rushers, Jarret Johnson, is talking up Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Bengals rookie wide receiver A.J. Green is talking about his duel with Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith while the two were in college. And head coach John Harbaugh, a long-time special teams coach with the Eagles before leading the Ravens to four straight playoff berths, is calling the Bengals the best special teams in the league.
"Darrin (Simmons) is a great coach. I've known him a long time and watched him work a long time," Harbaugh said this week in his conference call with the Cincinnati media. "Right now they're probably the best special teams in the league across the board. Very talented group. Core. Returner. And specialists. And great coaching."
Which caught the ear of Bengals linebacker Dan Skuta, who has been a special teams staple in both playoff runs the past three years. As a rookie in '09 he made his debut in Baltimore early in the year and ended up making 10 special teams tackles in eight games before leading the team last year with 16 and racking up 12 more this season to put him in third place just behind leader Jeromy Miles's 15 and Cedric Peerman's 13.
"That's cool that he would say something like that," Skuta said. "He knows what he's talking about when it comes to that."
But Harbaugh's units have uncharacteristically struggled this season. The Ravens have given up three touchdown returns (two punts and a kick), they just lost last year's top NFL kick returner (David Reed) to an ACL injury, and kicker Billy Cundiff has struggled with injury and accuracy. All nine of his misses have come on the road.
Meanwhile, the Bengals continue to get solid play as they bounce back from the disastrous Dec. 4 game in Pittsburgh where they fumbled a kickoff, had a field goal blocked, and got singed by Antonio Brown's punt return TD. In the three games since, the Bengals haven't allowed a kick return past the 30-yard line in bolstering their league lead in drive start, Mike Nugent has hit nine field goals, and Brandon Tate turned the St. Louis game with his second 56-yard punt return of the season.
It turned out to be the biggest return of the season. And the costliest. Skuta is flabbergasted how his block got him a $20,000 fine after he made an effort not to hit the guy in the back. The dreaded letter from the league office said he shouldn't have hit the would-be tackler so hard when he wasn't looking.
"I get hit like that and I'm not necessarily looking for a flag," Skuta said after Thursday's practice. "I'm kind of mad at myself because I wasn't looking."
Skuta didn't get a flag on the play. In fact, the Rams did when they hit Tate out of bounds. It is all very confusing to Skuta, who had no choice in the matter if he was going to pull off one of the big blocks that sprung Tate.
"If I slow up, I'm going to run into my own returner. If I don't loop out, I'm going to hit him in the back. I just feel I'm not sure what I can do," Skuta said. "It slows you down in the future because you feel like you can't play fast. It's a tough definition, saying you can't hit a guy from the side when he's not looking."
But Skuta was fast enough last week when the Bengals bottled up Arizona's dangerous Patrick Peterson on his one punt return and continued their streak of 10 straight kick returns not allowing anyone past the 20-yard line. Skuta and Peerman both had a tackle against the Cards, but Miles established the team lead with four.
Peerman is a Ravens draft pick from 2009 that got released after the preseason, but true to Respect Week he's got no vendetta against a club that drafted him in the sixth round out of Virginia. He appreciated the culture Harbaugh fostered on special teams and the mentoring he received.
"I really enjoyed my time in Baltimore. I looked up to everyone that was there," Peerman said. "This is like going against a big brother. I wasn't there long enough (to seek revenge). This is just another big game, another big challenge."