The inactive list for Sunday's AFC North title game at Paul Brown Stadium, led by Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (ankle), offered no surprises 90 minutes before the game. Especially for Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.
Even though NFL punt return leader Devin Duvenay (ankle) was declared inactive for the Ravens after not practicing all week, Simmons prepared like he was going to play in this traditional matchup of special teams excellence under Simmons and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
The Ravens, ranked No. 1 in special teams by Football Outsiders despite massive missing personnel, and the Bengals ranked seventh despite injuries to four core linebackers, look for the edge.
"We prepared like (Duvenay) was going to be there. He's a Pro Bowler and leading the league," Simmons said last week. "We'll prepare for the next guy when we know he's not playing. It will be a little different if he doesn't play.
"But the issues they've had in terms of who isn't there and who is, we've prepared like every single guy is playing. They're number one for reason. Their backups are more than capable, too. They're coached very well. It's a very important phase for them. You can tell by the way they play, the effort and resources they put into it."
Simmons, longest-tenured special teams coach in the NFL, has been going against Harbaugh for those 19 seasons. Before Harbaugh became the head coach in Baltimore in 2008, he was Eagles head coach Andy Reid's special teams point man.
"When John became the head coach, he told everyone (the other special teams coaches) at the combine, 'I hope you're going to watch the way we do special teams in Baltimore because it's going to be different,' and he was right about that. They produce year in and year out."
(For instance, the Ravens lead the league in kick return touchdowns since 2008 in a stretch six Ravens have been named Pro Bowl special teamers.)
The Bengals have also consistently produced under the hands-on Simmons in always shifting territory on the depth chart. Simmons, the only ex-punter or kicker who is a lead special teams coach in the NFL, used his punting skill this past week to get new punt returner Trent Taylor ready for the dangerous and diversified arsenal of 16-year Ravens punter Sam Koch.
Koch, playing in his 240th straight game Sunday, has been known to lob knucklers and blast boomerangs and everything in between. So Simmons, who has seen all of Koch's 150 punts against the Bengals, took it upon himself to punt all sorts of balls in practice and even at the end of pregame Sunday.
Taylor is emblematic how Simmons keeps it together during the season when injuries take the biggest toll on his unit. After the Bengals got beat by the 49ers two weeks ago because they muffed two punts in the first half, Simmons turned to Taylor, a practice squad veteran, and he was ready enough to handle everything his way.
During this season, Simmons has found people to replace his best special teams player, gunner and kick returner Brandon Wilson, as well as key kicking game players such as linebacker Jordan Evans, Akeem Davis- Gaither and Joe Bachie (out for the year) and middle linebacker Logan Wilson, out for the past three games.
Plus, Wilson's replacement at gunner, wide receiver Mike Thomas, has been nicked up and was out Sunday on the COVID list.
But recently acquired cornerback Tre Flowers stepped in opposite leading teams tackler Stanley Morgan last week in Denver to help punter Kevin Huber post a 50-yard net day.
"We've had guys come in here from different places and melt right in with the team," Simmons said. "Nobody has an agenda. The only agenda is they want to win. Our guys work their tail off. I demand a lot and they're willing to put in the work."
Check out the Bengals arriving at Paul Brown Stadium ahead of their Week 16 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
- With Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader on the COVID list and Mike Daniels promoted from the practice squad, rookie defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin was active for the second game this season.
- With Taylor returning punts again, wide receiver Trenton Irwin was inactive, as was edge Khalid Kareem (ruled out with a concussion Saturday).
- Also inactive was backup tackle Fred Johnson.