Updated: 5:20 p.m.
Brandon Tate's 56-yard punt return swung Sunday's game in St. Louis to the Bengals, but special teams coach Darrin Simmons has also seen a blocked field goal, a blocked punt, and punt return for a touchdown in the last three games.
So with the Cardinals bringing rookie punt return sensation Patrick Peterson and four blocked field goals to Paul Brown Stadium for Saturday's game against the Cardinals (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's WLW-700), he issued a warning Tuesday to his crew.
"I get a sense for things; we've got to tighten the ship," Simmons said after Tuesday's practice. "We're wallowing around here a little bit. We're taking things for granted. Now is not the week for us to do it. This is going to be one of our biggest challenges of the whole year. We have big challenges every week, but this is going to be a big one."
Peterson has popped four TDs and leads the league in punt return yards and, like Tate, has responded when needed most. He scored on a 99-yarder in overtime to beat the Rams and his 32-yarder in OT set up the winning field goal last week against the Browns.
He's also a pain on field goal block, where he's got one coming off the edge. But the guy that's causing problems there is defensive end Calais Campbell, whose three blocks have come from over the guard and tackle spots.
When Bengals punter Kevin Huber had his punt partially blocked Sunday in St. Louis, he and Simmons put the blame on Huber's inability to catch the snap cleanly.
"He didn't get his grip quick enough and it made him a little slow," Simmons said. "When you're trying to block (defensive end) Robert Quinn, a quick, powerful guy, he's going to have a mismatch on anybody unless you put an offensive lineman on him. He just fumbled it around and didn't get the same tempo he typically does."
But the Bengals also have the NFL's top kick cover team, along with the Broncos and Buccaneers as all three are allowing an average drive start of 20.5. And there is Tate, who energized his team with that third quarter return.
Simmons said the Edward Jones Dome was so quiet that Tate heard him yelling "Let it go" early in the game when he saw a Rams punt headed to the end zone.
"And I was 70 yards away," Simmons said.
SANTA PEKO: Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko got another assist Tuesday, but this time it was for the Christmas dinner he threw at the downtown Cincinnati restaurant Johnny Rockets for 50 children ages 6-12.
About 10 of his teammates planned to join Peko as he donned a Santa suit to hand out presents selected by wife Anna to a group from St. Monica's Recreation Center in Lincoln Heights.
Most of the front seven showed up to assist Peko, such as linemates Robert Geathers, Jon Fanene, Frostee Rucker, Michael Johnson, and linebackers Thomas Howard, Rey Maualuga and Brandon Johnson, and there was an A.J. Green sighting.
"The Cincinnati Bengals giving back for the holidays," said Howard as he mingled while the children dined. "It gives us a chance to talk to them, give them a little advice about studying hard and doing the right things. It's fun to help out a guy like Domata at a great event like this."
CATCHY DEBUT: The Bengals are staring at the possibility of going into their two biggest games of the year without their most experienced wide receiver and are banking on the diverse talents of rookies Andrew Hawkins and Ryan Whalen to fill the void if Andre Caldwell can't go.
After being inactive in St. Louis last Sunday, Caldwell revealed Tuesday that he plans to meet with a specialist this week to examine the groin/abdominal issue he says has plagued him since training camp and that he's day-to-day and not sure when he can return to practice.
"It's been hindering me lately; it just got overwhelming," Caldwell said. "I felt like I was hurting the team more than helping them by being in there, so I decided to shut it down."
Caldwell said he didn't want to complain about the injury because he knew with Jordan Shipley's season-ending torn ACL in the second game of the season that "I was the next man to step up" in the slot.
"I played through the pain. I tried to deal with it," Caldwell said. "I tried to fight it off so I wouldn't let the team down because I was the next man to step up."
Caldwell says the injury kept him from playing in the preseason opener and that it has been unpredictable since, sometimes feeling 100 percent and sometimes feeling 50.
"We knew the full extent of it. We've been working through it week by week managing to get by," he said. "It was a decision on my behalf and the coaches to shut it down last week."
He has hardly ever surfaced on the daily injury reports because he kept grinding through practice, saying it's not in his nature to complain about injuries and miss the work. But he couldn't escape the gaze of head coach Marvin Lewis last week and Caldwell got called into the office for a talk because he didn't look right to Lewis.
"I've been here four years so he knows how I can run and play the game," Caldwell said. "He obviously saw I wasn't doing the things I'm used to doing that come easy to me. ... He watched me heavily that Friday practice and he saw I wasn't 100 percent. I can't fool him or fool myself and hurt this team."
Caldwell has been relatively quiet since he caught the winner in Tennessee late in the Nov. 6 game in which he caught five balls for 22 yards.
In his five games since he's had 11 catches for 122 yards, 49 of them on a touchdown pass in Baltimore.
"A hurt me is not as good as a 100 percent Whalen or Hawkins out there," Caldwell said.
The speedy 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins, a CFL import, has been a spark with 19 catches for 226 yards in spot situations and he had one catch for 10 yards Sunday when he and Whalen, a sixth-round pick, worked in and out of the slot. It proved to be Whalen's NFL debut because in his only other NFL game he played just one snap against his former head coach at Stanford, San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh.
This time Whalen lined up for about 20 plays and his only catch, first as a pro, was huge. It was an out route on third down for a first down that kept alive the first drive of the second half that yielded Mike Nugent's tying 41-yard field goal.
"An option route," Whalen said. "Break out, sit, break in and most of the time that route has been open outside."
The play is why the Bengals have high hopes for the 6-1, 202-pound Whalen and why some around the club think he could be a reliable, heady man on third down in the T.J. Houshmandzadeh mold.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, an unabashed fan of Hawkins's quickness and intangibles, is also enthusiastic about Whalen's hands and intangibles.
"He's not the flashiest wide receiver in the world," Gruden said. "But there is something to be said about a guy that is always going to line up in the right spot and run the right route at the right depth. He's very dependable, has good hands, and I know Andy (Dalton) likes him and Andrew a lot. Since Shipley went down, Bubba (Caldwell) has done a nice job. Next man up."
Depending on Caldwell's health, the next men may be up a little bit longer.