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Roster crunch begins on teams

Jeromy Miles

DETROIT — Dan Skuta is trying to tell the rookies what to expect for their first time, but he can't.

No one can.

"There's really no way for them to understand how fast it's going to be," Skuta said.

Ready or not, the Bengals rookies get thrown into the NFL demolition derby of special teams Friday night here in the preseason opener (7:30, Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Lions at Ford Field. As usual, these games are critical for special teams coach Darrin Simmons and his boss, head coach Marvin Lewis, as they try to figure out the last several spots at each position that form the four specialist units.

Of course, what is unusual is that Simmons has had his players on the field for less than two weeks because of the lockout. And with Lewis indicating his starters are going to play more than usual, special teams may be the only place the kids get a chance to hook on to the final 53. Simmons wasted no time when he talked to the rookies for the first time before they ever stepped on the field 13 days ago at Georgetown College.

"Your learning curve has to be accelerated," Simons recalled. "I can tolerate mistakes maybe the first or second time, but when we make corrections they have to stick. We can't keep correcting things. I lose patience with that. If these young guys want to make this team they have to show it. This is where you find out. The games are really the only place. You see how guys react. Do they panic or do they go into survival mode? What do they do when the lights come on?"

The preseason lights have been the proving ground for the core of Simmons' groups. An undrafted wide receiver from Friday Night Lights, Quan Cosby of Texas, flashed enough in August 2009 that he made the club and is now the franchise leader in punt returns. It's also a good place to start weeding out the roster battles. If you're trying to project the final roster, you can't take bathroom breaks when the kicking game comes on.

It's a big night for fifth-rounder Robert Sands, the 6-5 rangy and athletic safety out of West Virginia, a player Simmons thinks can be effective running the field if he can balance the mental with the physical as the club tries to figure out whether to keep four or five safeties.

With the two of the three tight end spots taken, Chase Coffman comes into his third preseason again trying to prove to the coaches he's got enough speed to contribute on special teams. This year he's getting a handful from an undrafted free agent from South Dakota State in Colin Cochart and an intriguing waiver wire pickup from the Eagles in John Nalbone that Simmons is anxious to see. 

It looks like the Bengals have three rookie running backs vying for one or two practice squad spots and how seventh-rounder Jay Finley of Baylor and free agents John Griffin of Massachusetts and Jonathan Williams of East Carolina return kicks and cover is going to complement what they do from scrimmage.

It's also a big night for young cornerbacks that need to assert themselves in what has been an uninspiring battle behind the top three of Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Morgan Trent. Seventh-rounder Korey Lindsey, out of Southern Illinois and speedy David Pender are probably going to get look-sees at gunner on the punt cover team.

Jeromy Miles, the undrafted safety from Massachusetts who had a good enough preseason to stick on the practice squad last season, tries to pick up where he left off last year when he took advantage of the slew of injuries at safety and emerged as the punt gunner on a cover team that finished No. 1 in the NFL.  

Friday would be even more interesting if a couple of rookie wide receivers with tons of speed had been healthy. Andrew Hawkins and Jamere Holland—a California prep sprint champion—have been battling injuries and indications were they weren't going to be able to play. Just before the Bengals left Thursday they signed street free agent wide receiver John Standeford, a second-year player from Purdue. The Bengals need numbers there and went for a guy that played in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's system last year with Florida in the UFL.

But that's par for the course this year. The night before they left for training camp two weeks ago, Simmons and Lewis were lining up names they had never met, never mind see practice.

"It's been different, extremely different," Simmons said of this training camp. "Some of these guys have been on the field for only five days. You're trying to cram eight months of work into eight days. That's OK. Everybody's in the same boat."

Which makes special teams even more important than it was when Skuta found out just how fast the NFL is when he lined up for his first snap in the preseason opener in New Orleans in 2009 covering punts and almost got pinballed out of the league. Skuta, a linebacker undrafted out of Grand Valley State, got stoned at the line, got his helmet ripped off, and then got drilled again before coming back to the sidelines glazed.

"I pretty much got destroyed. I don't remember who it was, but he woke me up to what it's like to play in the NFL, that's for sure," Skuta said. "I wasn't ready for that kind of speed. It wasn't the prettiest play but everybody goes through that the first time. I don't care who it is. But after that I got better and better at it."

He recovered and is now one of the Bengals' more versatile players after he led them in special teams tackles last season and is now moving into the middle as the backup middle linebacker. He can also play SAM and rush the passer with his hand on the ground at end, and last training camp he dabbled at fullback.

Yet, first he had to impress Simmons.

"I didn't know how he was going to react," Simmons said. "I didn't know he was just going to freeze. He didn't either, but he came back, and that's what we're trying to find out."

One rookie we already know is going to be one of Simmons' core players is third-rounder Dontay Moch, the converted linebacker from Nevada that runs like no 6-2, 241-pounder should be allowed. The way he has flown around practice bodes well for what he'll do on special teams. Don't go to the kitchen on kickoffs. Keep an eye on No.52.

But no one really knows.

"It's something I can't explain," Moch said of the mysterious speed he'll see. "I don't know. I'm excited about playing special teams. I did it all through college until I was a senior … my strengths are my speed and athleticism and I have to hone in on it to show them I can play."

He'll get plenty of chances because he's starting on kick cover (on the inside), on kick return (guard), and punt cover (tackle).

"It's all about giving the effort," Moch said. "You have to have great eyes and good coverage. The more film you watch you can see everything. We've watched a couple of guys from last year. Just know your assignment."

But no one really knows.

"I try to tell them to just be ready," Skuta said. "It's faster than you've ever played."

But he likes the looks of Moch.

"He can run," Skuta said. "He should do OK."

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