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 87-yard return against Cleveland. But the Bengals came up with no points after the 87-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.