Now a word about special teams before Sunday's game (1 p.m-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium between the 6-6 Bengals and 7-5 Colts, which is looking more and more like a play-in game as the AFC playoff picture jumbles even more after the Patriots beat the Steelers the Thursday night.
Before you wonder if the Steelers can possibly lose their third straight at home when they host the Bengals Dec. 23, take them a game at a time and go back to special teams. It's a subject that gets ignored until it decides a game and we're not talking about them because the Bengals are coming off Evan McPherson's first walk-off-field goal in nearly two years.
We're talking about them because the Colts last week on two consecutive punts as the third quarter turned into the fourth quarter blocked one and sacked the other and got nine points out of it before they won in overtime in Nashville over the Titans.
Plus, Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons' Whiz Kids are playing top-ten ball in one his best coaching jobs during his 21 years here. He's got a rookie-laden group at key spots ranked No. 10 and the Colts aren't far behind with first-year NFL special teams coordinator Brian Mason at No. 14.
"Ultimately, we have to rely on our rules," said punt protector Nick Scott, a rare vet for Simmons and he's got him in the quarterback position. "One guy missed his block so that's what should happen. We can't let it happen. And the other one was a good scheme by their special teams coordinator and (the Titans) got caught with their pants down. That's the league. Run it until it doesn't work. We took note of that."
The unblocked guy was old friend Tony Brown, a former Bengals cornerback who caused a fumble. On the other play, safety Nick Cross looked unblocked after the Titans couldn't decipher the scheme of Mason, a familiar face in town as the former University of Cincinnati assistant named a finalist for Special Teams Coordinator of the Year by FootballScoop in 2021.
Simmons has stayed away from such gaffes this season, even though he's got a rookie punter in Brad Robbins and had a rookie punt protector in safety Jordan Battle for most of the year before Battle worked his way into Scott's starting job three weeks ago. He's also got rookie gunners in Andrei Iosivas and D.J. Ivey, as well as a rookie punt returner in Charlie Jones. And yet the Bengals are ranked seventh in defending punts and sixth in returning them.
"But they've got talent and these guys play hard," said Scott of the lack of experience at gunner. "Those guys run 21 -22 miles per hour every week. At that point it doesn't matter how young or old you are if you can move like that."
Simmons wants more out of Robbins, although he praised his one punt on Monday night that went 33 yards and was muffed and recovered at the Jacksonville 9. He needs more than 13 inside the 20 and fewer than five touchbacks.
At this point in the season, Simmons says he's working more with Robbins than he did the man he replaced, 14-year vet Kevin Huber. But since Robbins punted into the college football playoffs at Michigan and really had no rest before the draft, Simmons is also keeping an eye on his leg.
"It's timing, feel, development," Simmons said of those punts near the 50. "It's not all been his fault. He hasn't got the fortuitous bounce on a couple of plays. The gunners haven't always been able to get to the right spot. A couple of plays he's hit them too deep. There's been a whole variety of things. It's not one thing. But the one thing he can control is distance and direction. I think that's been a work in progress. I think the one the other night was good. Real good. Hit it right where he was supposed to."
Robbins also held for his first walk-off field goal and that part of his game has been fine because McPherson is rolling along. He's tried more 50-yarders than anyone this season (12) with his two Monday night and even though he missed one, he still has more 50-yarders than anyone since he came into the NFL in 2021. He's 21 of 28 for 75 % from 50 and is dwarfing his icon in that same stretch with Justin Tucker 16 of 25 for 64%. Even Evan's 21st career 50th came on one of his cool darts, a 54-yarder with 2:28 left in regulation for a 31-28 lead in the same direction his 57-yarder hit the crossbar earlier. But Simmons said he crushed the winner, a 48-yarder with 1:45 left in OT.
"He thinks he can hit every ball and I'm glad he feels that way," Simmons said. "He's a really positive guy. He analyzes a lot. But he doesn't overthink. That's what's unique about him. It was the same mannerisms that he had on a game-ender when he was a rookie. Never flinches.
"On the miss from 57, he just said, 'I undercut it.' But he doesn't dwell on it. The most important kick is the next one. Good short-term memory."
IN THE LOOP: Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who just moved past former Bengals running back Cedric Benson into 98th on the NFL all-time rushing list with 6,067 yards, has already made Justin Hill's highlight loop this week on his blood-and-guts six-yard touchdown run he dragged Jags cornerback Darious Williams and safety Andrew Wingard into the end zone.
Hill, the Bengals running backs coach, puts together power-point presentations and highlight clips from around the league to make his points.
"Determination. Will. Want-to," Mixon said. "We talk about see two, split two. That was a prime example of see two, split two. Kept my balance. Got real low and I was able to balance my hand on the ground and get in there. It was a hell of a run for us."
Asked if he thinks the play will make Hill's loop, Mixon said, "It already did."
The Bengals rushed for a season-high 156 yards, but for the first time this season Mixon split it up. He had 68 on 19 carries while rookie Chase Brown had 61 on nine carries in his break-out game. Mixon says he's OK giving the defense a different look.
"It's definitely cool. Chase is a young buck ready to get out there and show what he's got," Mixon said. "He's stepped up in a major way. As long as everybody continues to do that in whatever position there is, I think we'll be in great shape."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Mixon on Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase's emerging leadership: "Certain times throughout your career you get more vocal. Ja'Marr, he does what he does, he gives us great play on offense. Being a leader and becoming vocal, that just comes when you're ready. I think that's hitting him at the right time. Obviously, he'll bring everybody with him." …
Head coach Zac Taylor was upbeat about guys playing Sunday even though nose tackle DJ Reader (back) didn't practice Friday, and slot receiver Tyler Boyd (ankle) went limited, and both were listed as questionable. Cornerback DJ Turner (hamstring) went full and is OK to play …