Carlos Dunlap (left) and Adam Jones were active on third down.
Some would call it "ugly," like defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry. Some would say it didn't have to be that close, like defensive tackle Domata Peko. But thanks to the Bengals' elite special teams unit, Sunday's 33-23 victory over the Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium could also be called resourceful.
Even special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons grumbled about the Jags' massive kick return yards, but his players congratulated him for putting together a game plan that undressed the youngest team in football. Simmons brought in a group that had quietly placed in the top three in six of the NFL's 10 major special teams categories and on Sunday they showed why.
Cornerback Adam Jones electrified PBS' biggest crowd of the year by padding his NFL punt return lead with jaunts of 17 and 31 yards and the crowd of 60,057 serenaded cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick's takedown of punt returner Ace Sanders for a yard loss at the Jags 10 on the next-to-last play of the third quarter to revive a Bengals team that had endured an interception and punt in the last two series.
Plus, safety Taylor Mays blocked the Bengals' first punt of the year for a safety late in the second quarter and running back Rex Burkhead got his hand on the punt right before that one for a 28-yard deflection.
"Darrin is a hell of a special teams coach. He prepares us well," Mays said. "Even with that block, we made a lot of errors. I'd give back that blocked punt to fix some of those errors."
That's a window into Simmons' hard-driving approach that has been complemented by a superb punter in Kevin Huber and one of the greatest return men in the game. Jones' 31-yard return came courtesy of a short punt that he was able to grab on the run and after safety Shaun Williams' block as Jones took it to the right, his blockers did well not to block anyone in the back on a play that unfolded fast.
It set up A.J. Green's touchdown catch that made it 26-10 early in the fourth quarter.
"I caught it running. It was a short punt. It's always good to catch one of those running," Jones said. "(Special teams) can win and lose games. Darrin puts us in position to make plays. And we make the play when our time is called."
Mays got the call late in the first half and the Bengals leading, 10-3. A Carlos Dunlap sack of Jags rookie quarterback Blake Bortles backed the game up to the Jacksonville 11 and Mays took the punt off the foot of punter Bryan Anger after he beat linebacker Telvin Smith. The ball bounded out of bounds for a safety, the Bengals' first block since linebacker Jayson DiManche worked his magic last year against Cleveland and it turned into Tony Dye's TD return.
Burkhead said DiManche helped open up a seam for him.
"I didn't think I was going to block it, but I got my hand on it," Burkhead said. "I just set him up outside and came under."
Mays said he thought he worked a similar move.
"I didn't know I had that move. Apparently I do," Mays said. "Darrin and I were talking about it before the game. We thought we had a good matchup in the slot…It's something we practiced during the week. Right move at the right time. It's nice when you practice something during the week and it happens during the game."
Kirkpatrick was thinking the same thing. He fought through a dinged foot and ended up playing the last 10 snaps at cornerback when Leon Hall went out with a hit to the head. But he brought the crowd to its feet with his play on Sanders.
"I hadn't had one in a few weeks. It felt good to get back to doing something I take great pride in," Kirkpatrick said. "I was just excited. I wanted to jump around to get the crowd into it (but I couldn't). I didn't have to get the crowd into it. The crowd just fed off my energy."
His teammates also feed off Kirkpatrick's energy and he helped them take over first place in the NFL in gross punt average and net punt average against them after Sunday's outing.
"It's a passion. It's something (where) you're fighting for your brother," Kirkpatrick said. "And they're going out there hard. It's my job to go out there and go hard because I feel like I'm one of the best gunners in the league."
While Kirkpatrick staked his claim to the Pro Bowl, the Bengals defense got its best game of the year from Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins with six tackles as they got 10 pressures on rookie Jags quarterback Blake Bortles. Two of them came on sacks, one from Dunlap that set up the safety and the other from Margus Hunt on the last play of the game.
Everyone from the most experienced Bengal, linemen Robert Geathers, to the newest Bengal, middle linebacker Nico Johnson making his first Bengals start with 17 snaps in the base defense after getting here 18 days ago, said the Bengals have to a better job stopping the run. The Jags went for 5.3 per carry for 132 yards rushing. But they did stop Bortles on the zone read, holding a guy averaging 7.1 yards per carry to 10 yards on four rushes.
"We did a good job on the zone read,' said SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur. "But we can't give up so many explosive plays."
Yet the Bengals stood up again on third down, getting Bortles off the field on eight of his first nine third downs as the Jags finished 4-for-12 on third down. Dunlap's team-leading 4.5 sack came on third down.
"It was a coverage sack and Wallace helped me," Dunlap said. "Wallace had a great game. We ran a lot of games and he got me free on a few of them and we took turns hitting the quarterback."
Profootballfocus.com said the Bengals blitzed Bortles just once, but they showed it a lot in an attempt to confuse him and backed out of many at the last instance. One that got home was on third down when safety Reggie Nelson forced Bortles to step up and Lamur then hit his arm for an incompletion.
"We mixed it up. We had some good arrangements. I think he was confused," Lamur said.
Not all the time. Before Bortles threw an interception in the end zone picked off by safety George Iloka with 3:55 left to effectively end it, he had completed 10 of 11 passes.
"We've got to get better," Gilberry said. "But we fought, we scratched, we clawed."
And, special teams showed up.