Updated: 12/9/10 7:20 a.m.
The last two Bengals-Steelers games have swung on special teams. The Bengals won one last year on Bernard Scott's kick return. They lost the one this year on a Scott fumble, a blocked punt, and a missed field goal.
Off a big performance Sunday against the Saints that featured a huge field goal, Scott's two 40-yard-plus returns, and Quan Cosby's longest punt return of the season for 19 yards, special teams coach Darrin Simmons is looking for another solid 60 minutes in what promises to be another field position game on a field of nightmares quagmire at Heinz Field.
Simmons and new kicker Clint Stitser spent part of Wednesday's practice kicking off the grass field across the street from Paul Brown Stadium, where the rest of the team was working indoors on the FieldTurf game field. Simmons hears Sunday's forecast in Pittsburgh of sleet and snow, so the best he can do to simulate Heinz's resodded grass field is to kick off grass.
"It's the only way you can replicate it," Simmons said. "It could be worse when we get there, but this is the best way to do it."
Stitser is an intriguing work in progress. Last Sunday's game marked his first regular-season game of any kind since he kicked for Fresno State in 2007. He missed an extra point, but he also hit a 47-yarder with 4:25 left that gave the Bengals a brief 30-27 lead that no one in the building thought he was going to make in the wake of the 18-yard miss.
"I knew he was going to make it. I had confidence. You have to have confidence in these guys," Simmons said. "He hit the ball well in practice all week. I knew he was going to hit it."
Simmons realizes what a feat it was for a guy who had only kicked in a preseason game the last three years.
"How would you have done if you hadn't played golf for three years?" Simmons asked. "All you had done is go to the driving range, but you hadn't gone to the golf course and then your first time is at the first tee box at the Masters. How would you have done?"
Stitser came in on his off day Tuesday and kicked for a couple of hours using a nerf ball so he wouldn't use up his leg. The Bengals also hope that is going to help his kickoffs, where Scott has stood out since he fumbled the opening kickoff against the Steelers back on Nov. 8. Since then he's had a return of at least 30 yards in every game and almost won the last one against the Saints when he barely missed breaking a 47-yarder.
"He's more conscious of securing the ball while running," Simmons said. "It's all focus and concentration. It's like a running back. If you've got to tell him where to cut and where to go, you've got the wrong guy. You've got to have a simple plan, know where you want the ball to fit, and then let them go execute and have fun."
Scott's blockers have stayed pretty much intact because they are mainly linebackers, safeties and running backs. In fact it was linebacker Brandon Johnson's pancake block that looked to spring Scott on Sunday's last return, but the defender got back up and chased down Scott on what Simmons said was "a great effort play. If he doesn't make it, he could be gone."
More remarkable is that the punt coverage team that has gone through a lot more changes with the injuries to the cornerbacks. They are ranked first in the NFL and have gotten a lift from rookie free agent safety Jeromy Miles when he came off the practice squad to be a gunner against the Jets to replace the injured Rico Murray and made two tackles and drew two penalties.
When Murray returned last week, Simmons decided to hang with Miles and kept him teamed with wide receiver Andre Caldwell on the other side. Caldwell has been solid there the last month and the Saints got virtually nothing. The Bengals came into the game tied for the punt coverage lead and now they are in first by themselves.
»Clint Boling, who last month gained the most yardsby a running back this season against the Steelers with 54 on 18 carries, is thoroughly unconcerned that Heinz Field could be a snow-covered ice rink Sunday,
"I don't worry about all that stuff," Benson said before Wednesday's practice. "You guys worry about all kinds of … you're all BSing me today."
In the four games since, New England's BenJarvus Green-Ellis has hit the Steelers for 87 on 18 carries and Buffalo's Fred Jackson for 59 on 12, but who knows about Sunday? The National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio is calling for a 60 to 70 percent chance of a mixture of snow and rain at game time with the temperatures dropping into the 20s during the game and turning to snow. The Bengals will be playing the first game on a resodded grass field now that the University of Pittsburgh's season is over.
» Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals NFL Players Association rep, said he's encouraged by a settlement between the NFLPA and the NFL about dropping a lawsuit. And he hopes it stops the rhetoric.
"My message is I want us to work together more," Whitworth said. "I'm tired of the public bashing of each other. I don't know if it's for attention or to keep people thinking about it, but I just think it's silly on both sides. It's like your old adage your mom taught you: If you can't say anything, don't say anything at all. We're supposed to work together. Taking shots and jabs at each other is immature. Both sides have to stop and I would tell that to our side."
» Wide receiver Terrell Owens is the only otherBengal besides Whitworth in the top five of Pro Bowl voting with 262,851 votes, good for second behind Andre Johnson of Houston at 340,996. The next three are Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis (258,349), Anquan Boldin of Baltimore (229,532) and Wes Welker of New England (184,260).
» Rookie cornerback Brandon Ghee (groin) became the third corner to go on injured reserve and rookie linebacker Vincent Rey came off the practice squad to the active roster.
» Tight end Jermaine Gresham didn't practice Wednesday, but it wasn't injury related. Cornerback Johnahan Joseph (ankle), left guard Nate Livings (ankle) and running back Bernard Scott (illness) didn't practice. Owens (knee) and defensive tackle Pat Sms (knee) were limited.
» Three Steelers that aren't expected to play Sunday didn't practice Wednesday in right tackle Flozell Adams (ankle), tight end Heath Miller (concussion), and defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps). Safety Troy Polamalu (ankle) didn't work but is expected to play, as is wide receiver Hines Ward, not practicing but not because of injury. Running back Isaac Redman (ankle), the hero of last week's win against the Ravens, was limited.