Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons isn't kidding around with running back Giovani Bernard returning punts. Someone has to back up Adam Jones because he's a starting cornerback and Simmons put Bernard back there to start the preseason opener even though he's a regular on offense.
"If I didn't need to see him back there, I wouldn't put him back there," Simmons said this week. "We have to see how it evolves . . . he's obviously is a big playmaker, that's why we're looking at him."
Bernard is heading into his third season as one of the most exciting runners in Bengals history, dovetailing the second longest run in club history (89 yards) with two catches of at least 40 yards.
But how many chances is he going to get on an offense stocked with wide receiver A.J. Green, running back Jeremy Hill and tight end Tyler Eifert? He'll get his share, but how about more?
That's where Simmons comes in and why he's talking about evolution. See where Bernard's role goes this season and he'll gladly put him to work. Bernard is on board.
"It's fun,' Bernard said, noting there's not much difference in the pro return game than at North Carolina. "Catch the ball and run. There's a little more hang time, that's about it. More opportunities, the better. I enjoy opportunities."
Bernard returned two punts for touchdowns that final year at Chapel Hill, but Simmons is thinking about that surreal 35-yard TD run on Halloween night when Bernard was a rookie and turned into the Galloping Ghost on a remarkable reverse-field move.
"He's elusive," Simmons said. "I think about that run against Miami on Thursday night when he makes half the team miss. Plus, he's a strong runner who's built well."
But on his two returns last week, Bernard got nothing. It wasn't all his fault and Simmons believes he'll be better once he knocks off the rust.
"You've got to remember, he hasn't touched a punt since last preseason, so he needs to get the feel again,' Simmons said. "And he does need to be more decisive, but we also need to block better so he can be more decisive."
That's where the other guys come in. Bernard has the roster made, but with the Bengals in Tampa Monday (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) for the second game of the preseason, the scrutiny on special teams heats up as position battles emerge.
The speculation is at full boil. Second-year man Marquis Flowers, a sixth-round pick, is pitted against five-year veteran Chris Carter on his third team for what may be the final linebacker spot. This year's sixth-round pick, Derron Smith, and four-year veteran Shiloh Keo look to be embroiled in a joust for the last safety spot and undrafted rookie Troy Hill would appear to be against veterans Chris Lewis-Harris and Brandon Ghee for a cornerback spot.
And at wide receiver, another undrafted rookie, Jake Kumerow seems hooked up with veterans Greg Little and Brandon Tate for spots behind the quartet of A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and seventh-round pick Mario Alford.
There are other position scrums, but those are the ones directly tied to special teams. Guys like Hill, Lewis-Harris, Ghee, Little, and Kumerow have to block better in the vise in order to give the punt returners some more air.
Simmons came out of the box sending a message, giving last week's start at gunner to Tate, a seventh-year player on the bubble instead of to rookie corner Josh Shaw, a fourth-round pick that is going to make it.
"He did well in practice, practiced well against the Giants and I told him he'd start the game," Simmons said. "And he played well. He was in the right position, but he has to make the play. … Our guys have to play with better leverage."
For instance, Shaw made a nice tackle on a punt late in the game, but Simmons got on him about missing his release.
But he got on everybody. As Alford predicted, Simmons chided him for catching a punt on his own five. Alford doesn't have to win the backup punt return to win a roster spot, but Simmons wants a guy with sub-4.4 speed to cover as well as return. But he was a tad forgiving.
"If he returned it 95 yards I still would have ripped his butt," Simmons said. "I get it. He wants to make the team. There was some room. But I don't want him to catch that ball. The whole purpose of that play I called is to get the touchback and we would have had a touchback. Part of making the team is making the right choices."
Plus, Simmons wants Alford to be as decisive as well: "His biggest strength is his speed. He's got to use it."
It should also be noted that Tate let a punt go for a touchback and that's the kind of stuff that is going to help him make the team.
The irony of the Monday night special teams is that the guy who is probably going to get the most work is rookie kicker Tom Obarski and he's not going to make the club. But while Mike Nugent is doing more and more things as he comes back from a tender hamstring, he said this week the concern is coming back too soon and then having an injury that puts him out a month.
And Monday is a good reminder Tampa was his landing spot seven years ago coming back from a quad injury while with the Jets and the Bucs released him after the first four games.
So Obarski figures to get all the kicks like he did last week against the Giants.
MORE MO: Mohamed Sanu Jr. just missed by a day being born on his dad's birthday when he rolled into the world Friday morning at about 4. Sanu Sr., took that day off but was back at work beaming Saturday on his 26th birthday.
"My birthday doesn't mean anything anymore. It's all him," Sanu said. "He's a carbon copy. He looks just like me."
Here was dad's scouting report: seven pounds, 11 ounces, big hands, long fingers: "I think I'm going to make him a quarterback. They make all the money."
After being around wide receiver Marvin Jones' three sons and watching quarterback Andy Dalton's son turn one, Sanu can't wait for the next training camp so he can join the kids romping.
"He'll be able to run around then. He'll be a year old. He'll be a big dog," Dad said.
He knows what's on the docket for the off day after Monday's game: "We're going to hang out all day."