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Injuries challenge Bengals in special teams showdown


It looks like Clark Harris will miss his first game as a Bengal.

Even before the havoc of Saturday, the Bengals special teams faced a huge challenge Sunday in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against former special teams coach John Harbaugh's marauding band of Ravens.

If the Bengals are to survive without A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard on offense, their defense and special teams have to carry the day at what is sure to be a crazed M&T Bank Stadium as its Ravens try to get back into first place in the AFC North with a win.

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is riding a streak of 30 straight field goals dating back to last season. Every Cincinnati school kid knows the struggles of Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, whose three missed extra points in the last three games have cost his team dearly.

Ravens punter Sam Koch is headed back to the Pro Bowl while Bengals punter Kevin Huber hopes he's back in form after a mid-season dip put him 24th in the league in net punting.

While Bengals rookie returner Alex Erickson looks to be getting his footing with kick returns of 65 and 84 yards in two of the last three games, the Ravens' Devin Hester is second in the NFL in kick returns and is headed to the Hall of Fame with a total of 19 return TDs with five on kicks and 14 on punts and as Huber says at age 33 Hester "still has capability with his cuts and speed."

Now throw in the fact that the Bengals have a new long snapper against units that have blocked two field goals and a punt. Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons says field goal protection is huge problem against the Ravens. His own defensive lineman, Margus Hunt, won a game this season with a blocked field goal and he says the Ravens have three of them.

"They're a 3-4 base team and their defensive ends are all guys that are 6-6, 6-7 that are 295, 300 pounds," Simmons said after a practice last week.  Margus Hunt- type guys are exactly what they are. They've got three of them up the middle and they just try to bull you and kill you. They blocked a punt in Pittsburgh because a guy screwed up the protection. But field goals are an issue."

The Bengals' timing on their kicks is going to be tested. Clark Harris (groin), who has delivered every Bengals' long snap since early in the 2009 season without an unplayable ball, probably won't be active.  Injured last Sunday against the Bills, Harris stayed in the game but didn't cover punts and the Bengals responded by signing 6-3, 250-pound Tyler Ott to the practice squad after he won a Tuesday tryout.

When Harris' injury didn't rebound, the Bengals promoted Ott to the active roster Saturday in what could cost them defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, the player they waived to make room.

Ott, the first Harvard player on the Bengals roster since quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, has snapped in one NFL game and that was last year's season finale for the Giants. He was in the Giants training camp this year before he was released. He signed with New England out of Harvard in 2014 before surfacing again in the Rams 2015 training camp.

Harris is the only snapper Nugent and Huber have had since they began working together in 2010 as kicker and holder, respectively.

"The thing that makes (the Ravens) unique is they have three Pro Bowl specialists," Simmons said. "That makes the job of the guys that cover players and block a little easier. The more the specialist are on point, they take pressure off the other guys."

And the Bengals look like they're going to take a shot with the other guys, too. Backup safety Derron Smith (thigh), a core special teamer, was ruled out on Saturday with starting safety Shawn Williams (hamstring), a special teams contributor, already doubtful.

They do get a lift with the return of running back Cedric Peerman from injured reserve, a Pro Bowl special teamer who broke his arm in the third pre-season game. They'll need him with Sunday's shuffle. Harbaugh, the Eagles' long-time special teams coach before he became the Ravens head coach in 2008, has made sure the third phase has been a key factor in his program.

"It's all over their team," Simmons said. "They have guys on their special teams that all they do is cover kicks. They go out and sign Devin Hester and it doesn't matter he doesn't play wide receiver. He's a Hall-of-Fame returner."

Huber says he'll treat Hester just like he treats the Steelers' Antonio Brown, the only guy to return a punt for a touchdown against him in the NFL.

"Try to get the ball up and out," Huber said. "The perfect ball is out of bounds, but if it was that easy I'd do it every time. Mike and I have to put the ball in the right position to give our guys a chance."

Huber had a good start to the season and then dipped before emerging in the last three games with some solid efforts. Simmons thought the bye week energized him, but Huber says he spotted a mechanical flaw.

"My timing was wrong. I was too slow. So I sped up my tempo and it's back to normal," Huber said. "I've had a few kicks that were lower, but the contact was good. I'm trying to get the hang time back to where I want it to be."

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