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Quick Hits: Phillips Zeroes In On Punt Return; "Hot Spots" Burn Bright Vs. Miami's Tough Kicking Game

Darius Phillips eyes punt return job.
Darius Phillips eyes punt return job.

The last time the Bengals played the Dolphins, Miami had the No. 1 special teams unit in the NFL and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is expecting the same kind of measuring stick game Sunday (4 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium even though it is the preseason finale.

As always, Simmons casts a huge shadow over this game because the players vying for the last spots on the roster are pretty much judged on how they can contribute in the kicking game.

Simmons calls them "hot spots." One is backup tight end. Another is backup wide receiver. Also backup cornerback.

"There's a lot still to be decided from this game. There's going to be several spots and the lineup is going to change a bit this week in a lot of areas," said Simmons before Thursday's practice, noting that head coach Zac Taylor has already declared the first team defense out for Sunday.

Keep an eye on the Dolphins' dangerous punt returners. Jakeem Grant, Jr., the last man to return a punt for a touchdown against the Bengals in 2018, was third in the league in punt return average last year. Then there is Miami first-round pick Jaylen Waddle, the dangerous Alabama water bug.

It's not clear if either of them are playing Sunday, but all Simmons knows is two weeks ago both killed the Chicago Bears with Grant taking one 34 yards with a punt and Waddle going 24. Neither retuned one last week.

In last year's Dec. 6 game, Grant came in averaging nearly 14 yards per return, but had just a total of eight yards in four tries against Cincy and the Bengals forced him to make just his seventh fair catch of the season. At the end of the year, Football Outsiders rated Miami sixth and the Bengals ninth in their special teams rankings and Simmons is trying to replace two key losses of that unit in tight end Cethan Carter and safety Shawn Williams.

"I think it's been solid. I think we've done fine covering punts," Simmons said. "I'm going to change up the group quite a bit this week to get a better look at some of these guys who are coming off injury. Some of these guys still need to have opportunities to show. It'll change up some this week."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Simmons said it's the best he's ever felt about cornerback Darius Phillips returning punts in his four seasons here and he figures to be the Opening Day punt returner, pending the condition of starting cornerback Trae Waynes.

"We know the big question with Darius is can he catch the ball, can he handle the ball. I think he's done that pretty damn good so far," Simmons said. "I feel better about him right now than I have really probably at any point that he's been here, about putting himself in position to handle the ball and doing a good job. We rushed Washington one time last week, on the second punt of the game. He came up and made a nice catch on a short punt so I've been happy with what he's done so far."

Simmons said rookie Evan McPherson and vet Austin Seibert are going to continue to rotate Sunday … Rookie Drue Chrisman (hand) just began punting in practice this week, but Simmons says it's a medical call if he'll punt.