BENGALS S SHAWN WILLIAMS VS. DOLPHINS S CLAYTON FEJEDELEM
Darrin Simmons, the superstitious long-time coordinator who broke the Bengals special teams hex while making them one of the most consistent kicking games in the NFL's 21st century, is doing more than knocking on wood this week.
But, as usual, he won't say what as he prepares for Sunday's (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) showdown in Miami against the Dolphins' top-ranked special teams. With the help of two successful fake punts in the last three weeks, the Bengals have climbed back to No. 6, according to Football Outsiders. Simmons won't say if he called the play from the bench or if Williams, his on-field alter ego as punter Kevin Huber's personal protector, made the check and ran for the first down.
"I," says Simmons, "wouldn't answer my own mother if she asked me that."
According to Williams, it doesn't much matter. Other than Huber and his personal long snapper Clark Harris, Williams has taken the most snaps under Simmons since he arrived in 2013. In that stretch, according to Football Outsiders, the Bengals have finished in the top 10 in that hidden phase of the game four times and that includes last year's No. 1 ranking.
(Remember what Simmons inherited. The year before he arrived in 2002, the Bengals allowed four return TDs. Under Simmons, they didn't allow their fourth TD until the opener of his eighth season.)
And they care about stuff like that. "We want to be one of the reasons we win, not the reason we lose," Huber says of his fellow specialists. They know where they're ranked and where their foe is ranked.
"Darrin and I are kind of on the same wave pattern as far as thoughts," Williams says. "I can ask in my head, 'What would Darrin do here?' I know Darrin like nobody on this team does. Well, not as much as Clark and Kevin."
If Simmons won't answer his mother, Williams can remind Fejedelem, "Who his Daddy is." Williams checked in with Fejedelem after Sunday's game the Bengals teamers almost stole one from the Giants and reminded him of this Sunday's appointment.
"I taught Fej everything he knows," Williams says. "Darrin is still his Daddy. But I'm his big brother. Brayden is his uncle."
"Brayden," is Brayden Coombs, Simmons' former assistant who took the Lions' head special teams job this season. All of them went to Fejedelem's wedding back in March in Chicago and a few days later Fejedelem signed with the Dolphins.
Fejedelem, the fearless NAIA Illinois walk-on the Bengals took in the seventh round in 2016, blossomed into a Pro Bowl alternate under Simmons and Coombs and now what does that make Danny Crossman, the Dolphins special teams coordinator?
When Simmons came to Cincinnati with head coach Marvin Lewis in 2003, Crossman replaced Simmons as the Panthers assistant special teams coach. With both raised under the special teams tree of Scott O'Brien, you wouldn't exactly call them twins but X and O cousins would be pretty close.
"There's probably not much different what he's telling his guys than what I'm telling my guys," Simmons says.
When Simmons flipped on the tape this week, there were no surprises. Crossman has his people playing hard and in the right spots. Jakeem Grant leads the NFL in punt returns, the Dolphins are second in the league covering them and in a memo to Bengals kick return ace Brandon Wilson they are No. 1 covering kickoffs.
And as insurance, the balmy South Florida air has big-footed kicker Jason Sanders seventh in touchbacks.
Even though he missed the first three games, Simmons can see that Fej is Fej, leading the Dolphins in tackles as their special teams quarterback in the role of punt team personal protector.
That's the job he had here and when Simmons went searching for a new PP he didn't have to go far. Running back Giovani Bernard, who arrived a round before Williams in the 2013 draft, had done it before in spurts. But when running back Joe Mixon got hurt back in mid-October and Bernard became the No. 1 ball carrier, Simmons had to find someone else.
"Darrin has higher standards for you than you probably think you could ever reach," Williams says. "That never changes regardless of the score in the game or the record at any point in the season. That's what makes Darrin the great coach that he is. His standards are not only high for the team, but for each player specifically."
That was a short search, too, once he lost Bernard and landed on Williams. But then, that's what the best NFL special teams coaches do. Their No. 1 trait has to be reacting because during the week the other coaches take from them to fill their own holes and the kicking game is left with guile, improvisation and not much else.
Especially in a year for the Bengals that has been devastated by injury and racked by COVID uncertainty.
"Special teams coordinators get the short end of the stick," "says Huber, the longest-tenured Bengal. "They find out late Saturday, early Sunday who is going to be active, who is going to be inactive after a week of practicing guys. So he has to have multiple guys prepared, multiple lineups prepared in case one guy is down vs. another guy.
"Darrin does a great job with detail. Guys know what to expect. There aren't many looks we're going to see that we haven't seen already in practice. I'd say our guys are more prepared than any other special teams unit in the league."
Head coach Zac Taylor recognized Simmons' organizational skills when he appointed him assistant head coach during the offseason and while that probably kept interested teams at bay, it has also helped the club.
"He's a guy I turn to 20 times a day," Taylor says. "(We) talk about the roster, talk about schedules, talk about how to handle the game, how we're going to win this game on Sunday. I run everything that I'm thinking through him. He's been a great, great resource for me."
If Williams can hear Simmons in his head, Simmons can also hear Williams. He could hear him watching the tape of last Sunday's game. He heard him on that last punt return with two minutes left and the Bengals needing the 29 yards Alex Erickson got them to stay in it.
"I think our guys like the challenge of going against a team ranked like that," Simmons says. "They care about winning and doing the job well."
With pros like Williams. He blocked the gunner out of bounds and went back on the field to help out and get another block. That was after he helped spring Wilson for his franchise-long 103-yard kick return in the first quarter. It was after he ran seven yards on fourth down with a fake punt two weeks after he got 39 against the Steelers with another one.
That's how Simmons sees his unit. Everyone, and maybe most importantly his captain, a veteran like Williams who lost his starting safety job this year, making a big contribution no matter what.
"It's hard," Williams says of trying to adjust to a different role. "It's hard. Everyone sets out to have goals and standards and seeing it not come true, you deal with it. You do what you can to get over it, get through it and help your team."
So that means watching tape of the 5-7, 171-pound Grant gobbling up nearly 14 yards per return while taking one 88 for a score. "The little returner is really good," says Williams, who leads a crew that is ninth covering punts despite the revolving door at cornerback. Wilson, the Bengals' defending NFL kick return champ, has moved up to sixth and faces a Miami kick cover team that has put teams inside the 20 nine times when Sanders doesn't boot it out of the end zone.
"It should be a nice little game," Williams says. "Two good (units). Two coaches that came up together. Let the chips fall.
"We'll do what always try to do and help the team by bringing the juice."