Talk about the Bengals defense losing Geno Atkins, Leon Hall and Terence Newman. How about the special teams losing its two most valuable and prolific players from the previous three seasons in Dan Skuta and Jeromy Miles and still coming up with play after big play and its cover teams again in the top 11 of the NFL?
The special teams torch has been passed from Skuta and Miles to Vinny Rey and Cedric Peerman on down to rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche and rookie safety Shawn Williams. And the Bengals are looking to use it to warm up field position in Sunday's game (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Pittsburgh, where history shows the fate of the AFC North can be decided on a kick or punt.
Like last year, with Josh Brown booting the Bengals into the playoffs and the Steelers out of the playoffs with a last-second field goal. Or Bengals punter Kevin Huber tilting the field of that grinding 13-10 game with 48.3 net yards. Or two years ago when Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown blew open a blowout with a 60-yard punt return TD, the last one on the Bengals. Or four years ago when the Bengals last swept the Steelers on another chilly hardscrabble Heinz surface and running back Bernard Scott scored the game's only touchdown on a kick return.
The Steelers are 5-8, but not in the rivalry.
"It's still the Steelers; it's still us," says special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. "That means tough, close. It's field position. That means the offense not turning it over, the defense not giving up big plays and it means the kicking game being solid."
Simmons has been Marvin Lewis's man for all 11 seasons and if there's one thing the kids find out quickly, special teams is important around here. Williams, the third-round pick out of Georgia who is about to become the first rookie to lead the Bengals special teams in tackles since CFL veteran Kyries Hebert in 2008, said this week that he blocked three punts in college while playing every snap on defense.
"Ask Rex," Williams says with a big smile. "Capital One Bowl last year. Early. Yeah, maybe I did get past him."
Williams is looking for Nebraska rookie running Rex Burkhead to confirm he blocked a Cornhuskers punt out of the end zone just three minutes into what would be a 45-31 Georgia victory.
"No, it wasn't me. I wasn't on that team," Burkhead says. "It was a big momentum-changer, no question about it."
"My main thing I still wanted to be a factor on special teams as I was working my way up," Williams says. "It always gives you a chance to make another play."
Last year the Bengals led the NFL in a compilation of the 10 major special teams stats and despite the loss of Skuta and Miles, special teams has been a big factor in the 9-4 record. Late punts by Kevin Huber against Buffalo and Detroit set up winning field goals by Mike Nugent. Blocked punts by DiManche and Williams won the Cleveland game. Huber is fifth in the NFL in net punting; the Bengals are sixth in the NFL covering punts, and 11th in covering kicks.
And special teams will be key in the next three games. Pittsburgh's Brown is 11th in the NFL in punt returns, the Vikings are second in both punt and kick returns and the Ravens are first and sixth, respectively.
"We're a different (special) teams than we were the second week of the season," says DiManche, undrafted out of Southern Illinois in the tradition of Skuta (Grand Valley) and Miles (Massachusetts). "Unfortunately, we've had some guys go down and guys have had to step up. With each rep, our special teams have become better for it. I'm just trying to get better with each game."
The strategy on Brown sounds easy, but it's not. In Week 2 he popped a 40-yard punt return on the Bengals, the longest they've allowed this season.
"Try to keep leverage on the ball. Try to keep him in front of us. Get as many hats as possible to the ball and wrap him up," DiManche says. "He's elusive, he's quick. He's one of the best of the best. I really like playing against him. Last time he got out on us a little bit and we're going to try and be more consistent."
Simmons has been able to turn to veterans like Rey (tied for second with DiManche with 10 tackles) and Peerman (Huber's personal protector to go with eight tackles) to help develop the young guys.
"Jayson and Shawn have really embraced it and have really come on," Simmons says. "They know what it means and they want to contribute."
There may be someone else in the wings, but Simmons won't say. Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick have been his best gunners, the first men down covering punts on the outside. Laboring behind three talented corners, Kirkpatrick overcame some lethargic moments on special teams (remember the opener in Chicago?) to be a big contributor. But with Kirkpatrick most likely starting in place of Newman, who starts in place of Kirkpatrick? Or does Kirkpatrick do double duty?
"We'll see," Simmons says.
It looked like he was trying to pass the torch.