Tony McRae, who has played for both the Bengals and the Ravens, has a unique look into that intriguing special teams mirror both teams share at the top of the NFL when they meet Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium.
McRae, a cornerback who has been a staple as a leading player in the Bengals’ burgeoning kick teams ranked No. 1 by at least one web site, has one of the two teams’ connections from a seven-week roster stint with the Ravens in 2017 during which he worked for special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. Rosburg retired following last season after what his meticulous colleague in Cincinnati, Darrin Simmons, documented as 33 career matchups against each other.
“Jerry and Darrin, same guy,” McRae says after Thursday’s practice. “They do different stuff, but they coach guys the same way. Demanding guys. You know Darrin. Perfectionist.”
McRae turns around, wondering what the next reprimand will be.
“This interview,” he guesses.
Simmons almost got his perfection last month in Baltimore when he geared up his young guys for that semi-annual chess match in Baltimore. Rosburg has handed things over to assistant Chris Horton and with special teams godfather John Harbaugh in his 12th season head coaching the Ravens, the status quo reigned as Baltimore led the league at that point in the consensus special teams rankings. This time Simmons’ no names (a new kick returner in Brandon Wilson, a rookie gunner in Stanley Morgan, a rookie linebacker in Germaine Pratt) check-mated the Ravens and their troika of Pro Bowl specialists.
The Bengals lost, but they were within 23-17, because they outkicked the Ravens, 142 yards to eight, in a dominant effort that still had Harbaugh smarting this week when he talked to the Cincinnati media during a conference call. If you’re looking for emotion and passion, check out the Bengals’ kick coverage, ranked ninth in punts and seventh in kicks. According to footballoutsiders.com, now the Bengals go in with the No. 1 kicking game and Baltimore is ranked third.
“A (touchdown) return. On the opening kickoff no less,” Harbaugh mused of Wilson’s 92-yarder that would have been good in flag football. “They got the better of us on special teams last game. We have our hands full playing the Bengals, certainly in special teams.”
This rivalry in the kicking game shares the DNA of coaches that honed their styles in the turn-of-the-century NFL before the lawmakers transformed special teams and its coaching. After running the kicking game for years at the University of Cincinnati, Harbaugh made his mark as Andy Reid’s steel-belted special teams coach in Philadelphia. During the same stretch, after mentoring under special teams pioneer Scott O’Brien, Simmons came to Cincinnati 16 years ago with Marvin Lewis and developed a resilient and resourceful scheme that was a major factor in Lewis turning the Bengals into perennial AFC North contenders
There’s a lot of mutual respect there.
Simmons: “I know him well enough to know they’re going to have their guys prepared. I see his mark all over their roster with the players they have … I’ve always respected the way they do things over there, the way that they play. They’re very well prepared. That stems from the head coach.”
Harbaugh: “He does such a good job with the game plans and scheming up his opponents and putting his players in position. I think he’s one of the very best in the league at what he does. He’s a great coach. It starts with him. They also have a really good core. They take stock of that and they put a lot of really good players out there. Returners, core players, linebackers, tight ends.”
You can even see the rivalry in some of the transactions down through the years. One of Simmons’ Pro Bowlers, running back Cedric Peerman, was a Harbaugh draft pick. Simmons was rankled when one of his top players, safety Jeromy Miles, got claimed by the Ravens off waivers early in the 2013 season but ended up on top when the Bengals split with Baltimore and won the North that season as Peerman and a rookie safety named Shawn Williams emerged.
“That’s what you do on special teams. Not only every year, but every game you have to tweak personnel and game plan,” says Brayden Coombs, Simmons’ assistant.
Coombs also has a tie in the rivalry. He’s been watching and talking to Harbaugh almost as long as he’s been alive. His father Kerry, the former head coach at Cincinnati’s Colerain High School before heading to Ohio State and then the NFL’s Titans, developed a bond back in the day as Harbaugh pounded the recruiting trail. Brayden Coombs and Harbaugh played DB at Miami of Ohio 20 years apart, so there’s a lot to talk about when they meet at the NFL scouting combine.
“Obviously we’re not talking scheme,” Coombs says, “but he’s a great guy to talk to about football.
“You look at what he’s done there with a special teams background. I think that helps you to be more willing to change. He’s not an offensive or defensive guru. But he’s not married to a system and you see what they’re doing with a young, different kind of quarterback.”
And then there are the daily clinics with Simmons.
“You know Darrin,” Coombs says. “The attention to detail is amazing.”
They’ve become a very good combo.
“We don’t have to do anything,” McRae says. “Those two do it. Darrin draws it up, Brayden coaches it and all we have to do is just go out there and do it.”
And so far they have with not only Xs and Os, but chemistry.
“I was so fired up in the meeting today,” says Coombs before Thursday’s practice. “We’re only halfway there. But it’s great to see the guys playing for each other and playing well and trying to get better.”
Not only are they covering, but Wilson’s 4.3 speed and hair-trigger decisiveness has given them something special in the kick return game. After the Rams preferred to drill it into the Wembley stands two weeks ago, Wilson needs three returns to get back into the NFL lead with his gargantuan 37.4-yard average. Not only is that seven yards better than the leader, it would be the second highest of all-time. Which happens when you have three returns of at least 40 yards.
“That’s a tough average to keep, but we’re trying to get him into the end zone again this year,” says Coombs, which would be a Bengals’ first since no has taken two back in the same year. “He’s still trying to figure it out. He’s only had, what? Ten returns. He’s just getting started.”
Simmons is also looking at tried and true vets like his alternate Pro Bowler Clayton Fejedelem, a safety and his captain who has no stats.
“That hasn’t shown up yet in the statistical column,” Simmons says, “but he’s so important. I put a lot on his plate and he’s really the quarterback of all four phases.”
And then there’s his 11th-year punter Kevin Huber, the Bengals all-time leader in everything. Huber’s net average is 41.1 yards, his highest in five years.
“He’s gotten the ball up in the air probably better than he has lately,” Simmons says. “He’s limited our exposure in returns and has been consistent.”
But Simmons wouldn’t be Simmons if he didn’t fire a warning shot.
“You’re only as good as your last play,” he says. “It’s not like offense or defense. We get one play. Fourth down. One play and all the good work goes away.”
So another day looms in an all-star scrum against Harbaugh and his Pro Bowl kicker, punter and long snapper.
“The familiarity is definitely there,” Simmons says. “You change things up, but there are only so many different punt rushes you can do. I think that’s why a lot of times it was always a push. A lot of pushes in terms no one really wins.”
But don’t tell Harbaugh that. Not after the last one.