11-26-02, 5:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Brandon Bennett made a dismal season just a little more special Tuesday when he became the first Bengal in the 10-year history of the award to be named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month.
In the month of November, Bennett ran into the NFL elite among kick returners and takes an AFC-best 1,098 yards into December with five games left.
Bennett may not play this Sunday against the Ravens because of an injured knee, but he's more optimistic after spending part of Tuesday's day off running on the team's underwater treadmill.
"The award is for everybody who plays out there," Bennett said. "It's for all those guys who are out there blocking and giving me some room. And there are a lot of guys working hard doing it."
Bennett, 29, a fourth-year running back who backs up Corey Dillon, had returned seven kicks for 121 yards in three previous seasons. But he did better that in three games this month,
including a club-record 228 yards on Nov. 10 in Baltimore, a 173-yard effort the next week against the Browns, and last Sunday in Pittsburgh with 129 despite wrenching his knee during a 52-yard return on the second half kickoff.
When the Bengals traded kick returner Curtis Keaton to the Saints before the season and T.J. Houshmandzadeh took a bigger role at receiver, they turned to Bennett in Week Three and special teams coach Al Roberts re-worked the scheme.
"It had been designed for Curtis' quickness," Bennett said. "We'd squeeze guys in and try to bounce him to the outside and let him use his speed. With me, it's more downhill at you. We just put a man on a man. Hit them in the mouth and I try to run through arm tackles, or get through the opening. Guys have been getting used to that and it's really worked."
It worked well enough to produce a 94-yard touchdown return in Baltimore and an 82-yard return against Cleveland. But the Bengals came up with no points after the 82-yarder and the 52-yarder last Sunday in games they lost by a touchdown.
"I wish he had scored," said quarterback Jon Kitna with a laugh. "We haven't scored on his two best ones lately. He's doing a great job. We've got to take advantage of that."
The numbers have been good enough to get Bennett's teammates thinking about him for the Pro Bowl. His 26.1-yard average is tied for fourth in the NFL behind leader MarTay Jenkins of Arizona at 28. When he gets healthy, he seems certain to break Tremain Mack's club record of 1,382 yards and is challenging his record 27.1 average.
"We're starting to make plays. We're hitting our best football right now," said Bennett of the Pro Bowl. "That's a positive for us. That's one of the things that's out there."
The last Bengal named Special Teams Player of the Week was David Dunn, when his kick return for a touchdown at the end of the first half fueled a 34-24 victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 10, 1996.
T.J. TRIALS: T. J. Houshmandzadeh may lose his punt return job this Sunday, but he's not losing any of his friends after losing critical punts in the fourth quarter the past two weeks.
On the plane ride home from Pittsburgh Sunday, a bunch of team leaders stopped in the aisle to give him a hang-in-there, such as Corey Dillon, Brian Simmons, and Takeo Spikes.
Dillon, who also took aside wide receiver Chad Johnson last month after he ended the 28-21 loss to the Colts on a red-zone drop, reminded Houshmandzadeh that no one is immune from blame.
"It's cool to hear those guys say 'Don't worry, and this and this, but I still know," Houshmandzadeh said, "if I just fair catch it, we're up a point, we get a drive going and. . ."
Houshmandzadeh could have been talking about both punts, but he was referring to the one in Pittsburgh that he fumbled while running. Against Cleveland 10 days ago, he doesn't think he would have dropped
the punt if he was going to be in position to make a fair catch.
"But I don't think like that. That's not my personality. I don't play to lose," he said. "I play to win. I'm thinking about going all the way and that's my problem right now."
Houshmandzadeh is using Johnson, his Oregon State teammate, as a model. Since the Indy wreck, Johnson has averaged 5.5 catches and 94 yards per game. Houshmandzadeh recalled what Dillon said to Johnson after that game.
"He told Chad that he gave up one last year," said Houshmandzadeh, a reference no doubt to Dillon's fumble inside the Bengals 5 against Tampa Bay in overtime.
"And he told me, 'Against Cleveland, everyone is saying you and I messed up,"' said Houshmandzadeh of a game Dillon got stopped from the Browns 1 twice. "CD said, 'But if I don't mess up, you don't have a chance to mess up.' CD is really cool about that kind of stuff. Basically he said you've got to forget about it."
After the Colts' game, Houshmandzadeh consoled the sensitive Johnson by telling him, "You've got to let it go." Now, it's reversed.
"The shoe is on my foot now," Houshmandzadeh said. "Hopefully I can come out of this the way Chad came out of his."