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Kick the edge

Nobody is rolling their eyes that Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, the old Kansas punter, is predicting that Ravens punter Sam Koch holds the key to Sunday's AFC championship game.

In a game of field position, Simmons says the team that has the edge in punting has the edge, period, and "Baltimore has a decided advantage in that area."

In the four games against the Ravens and Steelers this season, the Bengals special teams held up the best of their three phases. They ripped off three plus-35 kick returns compared to one for the Ravens and Steelers, and after Yamon Figurs' punt return TD was called back in the opener Cincinnati kept both teams in check and gave the Steelers' Santonio Holmes just 21 yards on five punt returns.

Simmons felt the Bengals were able to match both teams' physicality in the kicking game and the emergence of players like safety Kyries Hebert and Corey Mays bode well for next season. But while punting gives the Ravens an edge, Koch's predecessor at Nebraska, the Bengals' Kyle Larson, has to show Simmons more.

After Larson finished last in punting this season, Simmons says the Bengals can't stay status quo and have to bring in competition for him in training camp after five seasons and a long-term deal.

"I will say that we had a lot more weather games. Mainly wind. It was the windiest it's been since I've been here," Simmons says. "But you can't finish at the bottom of the NFL. The opposing punters had the same deal against us. He has to pick it up. He knows it. Everybody knows it."

It's not professional bias that Simmons has picked the team coached by a member of the close-knit special teams coaching fraternity. Baltimore's John Harbaugh probably should have won the NFL's Coach of the Year in his rookie season for skillfully bringing together a notoriously fractured locker room split along the fault line of offense and defense.

Simmons thinks special teams prepared him for the job.

"The bond the special teams coach shares with the head coach is that he's the only other guy that has to deal with all 45 players on the (game day) roster," Simmons says. "You deal with them; you know their strengths and weaknesses. That's why it's an easier transition than people make it out to be."

Plus, Simmons says there's the added intangible of playing in the kicking game against a team whose head coach was a special teams coach.

"Don't think players don't know that. Our players knew it. I know they knew it. Players don't want to be embarrassed," Simmons says. "The reason players play is for pride.

"I don't care who wins this game. But it's going to be a hell of a game. They're both physical in the kicking game, but that's how they are in the rest of the areas. They're similar all the way around."

In no way is Simmons discounting the Steelers. He's been very impressed with how they went from one of the worst cover teams in the league in 2007 to No. 1 covering kicks and No. 4 covering punts.

Like the Ravens, the Steelers made some moves in the offseason and during the year to bolster the kicking game with the acquisition of free agents like linebackers Keyaron Fox and Andre Frazier. Fox had been a special teams standout in Kansas City and Frazier is a veteran of solid special teams play in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

"Certainly you can see the influence (of Harbaugh) in the players they've signed and drafted," Simmons says. "They picked up Brendon Ayanbadejo and he's done what he did in the NFC and become the AFC Pro Bowler. Two guys they drafted (safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura) were taken with that in mind. That they were going to be backups and playing teams. Nakamura has done a heck of a job for them. He wasn't going to come in and start (he was a sixth-rounder), but all he did in college was make plays. He was always around the ball. He's on all four phases in their kicking game."

The fact that both teams play 3-4 defenses always helps their coverage teams because that allows them to dress more linebackers on game day than a 4-3 team like the Bengals. That said, the Bengals not only held down Holmes, but Glenn Holt popped a 44-yard kick return against Baltimore in the opener and added a 34-yarder the next time against the Ravens in a game rookie receiver Andre Caldwell added a 43-yarder.

The Bengals and Titans know how explosive Holmes is. He has beaten the Bengals in overtime on a catch-and-run 67-yard touchdown and last week against San Diego he got the Steelers right back in the game with a punt return TD.

Still, Simmons gives the nod to the Ravens' Jim Leonhard on punt return, another guy Harbaugh whisked off the bottom of a roster. Leonhard had played well on special teams in Buffalo, was brought in as a backup safety, and ended up starting most of the season with Dawan Landry down.

"Over a full game I'll take Leonhard," Simmons says. "Holmes has the ability to score from anywhere on the field, but Leonhard is very sure-handed, he's a little elusive in his own right and he's a little more physical."

Frankly, the return stats don't scare anyone. The Steelers are 31st and 29th in punt and kick, respectively, and the Ravens are 19th and 31st. Still, Simmons gives an overall physicality edge to Pittsburgh and that's a category he likes where his team is headed.

Not only did Hebert come in from the CFL with a hard-hitting reputation to lead the Bengals in special teams tackles, but Caldwell threw his 200 pounds all over the place. They were a nice tag team as punt gunners and helped the Bengals finish 13th in punt coverage.

"The biggest improvement in players usually comes from the first to their second seasons," Simmons says. "A guy like (safety) John Busing always has a spot because of what he can do and it was good to get (linebacker) Jim Maxwell back at the end of the year."

The Bengals were 26th and 14th in punt and kick returns, respectively, and Simmons knows what the simple answer is there.

"We need to find effective and consistent players," says Simmons, who wouldn't rule out incumbents.

But there is no question in his mind what is the biggest offseason special teams question. It involves the status of Shayne Graham, the club's most accurate kicker in history as he heads into free agency.

"He's a huge part of what we do," Simmons says. "He's been consistent."

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