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Quick Hits: Bengals Specialists Hope To Observe Super Anniversary Vs. No. 1 Bills; Practice Update; Callahan Colts' Candidacy Endorsed At Home

Special teams captain Michael Thomas looking for a big AFC Divisional.
Special teams captain Michael Thomas looking for a big AFC Divisional.

Most view Sunday's AFC Divisional (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) between the Cincinnati Joes and the Buffalo Allens as a quarterbacks game.

But with this mini Pro Bowl played on the 34th anniversary of the greatest special teams day in Bengals history, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons needs another masterpiece at Highmark Stadium with Bills returner Nyheim Hines' top-ranked crew leering at another big moment.

It was Hines' two stunning kick returns for touchdowns two weeks ago that knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and put Buffalo at home instead of in Cincinnati for this one. It was Stanford Jennings' 93-yard kick return with 34 seconds left in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXIII that gave the Bengals a 13-6 lead before Jennings' heroics and Jim Breech's three field goals weren't enough to fend off Frisco's 20 points.

"Then it would be a perfect day to flip the script on what these guys did to the Patriots," Simmons said after Friday's practice. "These guys are a good group. They've always been good on special teams. It dates back to Marv Levy."

Levy, one of the first special teams gurus, was the Bills head coach 34 years ago when the Bengals beat them in the AFC title game at Riverfront, and this season his descendants won Football Outsiders' overall special teams title, a web site ranking NFL kicking games that Simmons considers the gold standard.

A ranking thanks in large part to Hines, a trade deadline pickup who roasted Bill Belichick's vaunted kicking game for 96 and 101 yards returns.

"You don't want to overcomplicate it. If you run fast, get off blocks and be physical and tackle, you should be OK," said linebacker Markus Bailey, the Bengals leading special teams tackler along with wide receiver Stanley Morgan.

"It's kind of the same with all explosive returners. Get a bunch of guys to pursue around the ball. You've got to contain, get off blocks, be disciplined in the field lanes. He likes to get the ball outside. Be disciplined and be aggressive getting off the blocks."

But Simmons also points to kicker Tyler Bass' 27 of 31 on field goals, veteran Sam Martin's middle-of-the pack 41.3-yard net after they had to scramble to find a punter after the preseason and their third-ranked kick cover team.


"It's going to be one of our biggest challenges of the year," Simmons said.

The good news is after some uncharacteristic Darrin-esque play up until about the nine-game winning streak, the Bengals special teams has been hitting its stride.

"Solid," Simmons said.

A No. 18 rank in Football Outsiders to outsiders is a bit jarring since the Bengals were eighth last year, No. 1 in 2019 and in the top ten five times from 2014-2021.

But they have been playing most of the season with a first-year punter (Drue Chrisman), a rookie long snapper (Cal Adomitis) and a second-year kicker in Evan McPherson.

"I can never remember any team that had it that young in those spots. That's not a lot of game experience," Simmons said. "The evolution of those three has grown and we've gotten progressively better. It started last year when we were missing guys like Akeem (Davis-Gaither). Trent Taylor just began returning punts (in the postseason) and we've gone through some kick returners with Chris Evans and now Trayveon (Williams).

"It's not how they do individually, but it's what they do collectively and sometimes that takes time."

When Simmons moved on from Bengals all-time punter Kevin Huber at the bye, they were next to last in net yardage. They have yet to lose with Chrisman punting and his net of 42.6 would tie him for ninth in the league if he had enough punts to qualify.

He'll also be punting to Hines, ninth in punt returns, for the Bengals' 27th-ranked punt cover team that has picked it up under Chrisman.

"They've got a lot of guys that can run and like to cause havoc," said safety Michael Thomas, the Bengals special teams captain. "We've had some rough patches, but we've been working on cleaning them up. It's been better lately and it has to be."

Simmons spent this week shoring up punt protection after the Ravens nearly caused tragedy last Sunday. "We've got a rookie snapper and rookie punter. Why wouldn't you rush us?" He noted in the back-to-back games Baltimore set up just two returns.

Thomas, the ten-season vet who serves as the punt team's personal protector, is a soothing figure back there. And a gutty one. When he limped off the field last Sunday, he made sure he was back on the field to protect the next punt. He's still go.

The big games have begun popping up the last month. Chrisman pumped one inside the 2 in Tampa Bay with a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter in the same game they were all over a fake punt. The next week in New England Chrisman handled miserable conditions stymying Marcus Jones and they almost got a blocked punt.

In Pittsburgh, Trayveon Williams set the team record with four special teams tackles, a record Davis-Gaither tied last week and he made a fifth but the roughing the kicker call on the Ravens wiped it out.

"A big game by us," Thomas said of the Super 34th anniversary, "would be a nice way to celebrate."

PRACTICE UPDATE: After ruling out starting offensive linemen Alex Cappa (ankle) and Jonah Williams (knee), head coach Zac Taylor said after Friday's practice cornerback Tre Flowers (hamstring) is doubtful.

After pumping noise at the offense Thursday and Friday, Taylor said communication is the most encouraging thing he took from the week with the re-tooled offensive line. They got a dose of AC DC Friday in the indoor facility.

Now's a good time to note again that all three new offensive linemen have played in a playoff game in Arrowhead Stadium, supposedly the noisiest building in the league. Left tackle Jackson Carman and right tackle Hakeem Adeniji split the snaps at right guard in last year's AFC title game and right guard Max Scharping started a 2019 AFC Divisional in Kansas City when he was a Texans rookie.

Taylor hit all three practice venues this week: Grass fields on Wednesday, on the Paycor Stadium turf Thursday and in the IEL Indoor Facility Friday. He said he was headed to the grass fields again Thursday, but 27 mile-per-hour winds convinced him to go into the stadium because of fear the club's video cameras would be at risk.

"It worked out really well in the stadium. That's kind of what I'm used to when I've been in Buffalo," Taylor said. "It rained a little bit at the end. It was good to have those conditions."

But from what he hears, the wind isn't going to be like that Sunday, more like four to six miles per hour. According to some Upstate New York reports, some rain and later a rain-snow mix is in the forecast with less than an inch of snow expected with temperatures in the upper 30s.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is 7-0 in Bengals games less than 40 degrees.

CALLAHAN CALLED: Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan became the 10th head coaching candidate to be interviewed by the Colts Friday when he apparently did a virtual call after practice.

"I don't think anybody knew what a virtual interview was," said Taylor of his pre-COVID 2019 meeting with the Bengals in Los Angeles.

Taylor, then the Rams quarterbacks coach, had the luxury of a playoff bye and was able to interview with three teams in person.

No one wants to lose him, but the big guys went to bat for him Friday.

"Deserve it. He's been unbelievable for us as leader of players and coaches," Taylor said.

Joe Mixon, his bell-cow running back, also endorsed him when he met the media in the Bengals locker room.

"I felt like what Cali has done for us and his past speaks for itself. He's had all the greats (quarterbacks)," Mixon told reporters. "Matt Stafford, and he (coached) Peyton Manning. He's got Joe Burrow. The way he leads the guys, it's like no other man. I think the world of Cali.

"I know he knows how to lead a group of men. How to lead a group of men to come in and do your work, focusing on your craft and making sure that you're prepared what's coming for the game."