5-27-04, 1 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
All the reasons Darrin Simmons always wanted to coach special teams under a defensive head coach have been lining up in his kick return and punt team drills the past three weeks.
Four of the Bengals' five selections on the first day of last month's NFL Draft are already grizzled special teams veterans from their college days. One of the fourth-rounders is a speedy 270-pound potential cover man. The sixth-rounder is 100 pounds lighter, but just as versatile.
Even first-round pick Chris Perry, who had to leave practice Wednesday when the team said he "tweaked," his hamstring, has been force fed special teams despite playing only running back at Michigan.
If they are cautious about Carson Palmer and anxious about the defense, then they think they have a pretty sure thing in special teams with training camp 64 days away.
"These are guys who are going to be able to contribute significantly right away," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle, who has been working with several of the newcomers. "We made big steps with Coach Simmons last year and the emphasis Marvin (Lewis) has placed on it, coupled with the fact that we're going to be have better, athletic players on a number of those teams this year. We should even take another big step forward. This should be a really big year for our special teams."
This comes barely a year after the Bengals' special teams took the biggest step of all in emerging from a five-year sentence to the editing room of NFL Bloopers. In his first season, the 31-year-old Simmons presided over one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NFL history.
In 2002, the Bengals finished with the worst season total in the 25-year history of a special teams survey that adds the league rankings of 21 different categories. In 2003, the Bengals leaped from 32 to 25 in the league, just 20 points out of the top 20.
"We're deeper, younger and more athletic at this point than we were last year at this time," Simmons said after Wednesday's practice. "We have a much more competitive situation now than maybe it has been in the past because of the influx of young talent that is going to push the guys in front of them."
Maybe the biggest thing the kids bring with them is their desire to play teams. Many players felt that was missing before Lewis and Simmons arrived.
"It was almost like they were going to fit you into a mold no matter what," said linebacker Adrian Ross. "Now, they're getting guys for the plays they run and the style they're going to play. You feel like you're useful."
The second-rounders, Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and Maryland safety Madieu Williams, were staples of their special teams. Ratliff returned punts, covered kicks (he covered the first few punts of the Senior Bowl for the South against the Bengals' coaching staff) and says, "I virtually was on every special team at Florida. We've got some multi-dimensional players on this team and that brings an added element to it when you have a guy that can return a punt, and then go back out and hold up a man (on kick cover)."
Even though Williams started at safety, he played the key role of gunner (the men on the end who are the first down field) on punt coverage for the Terps, as well as being a contain man on the kickoff team. Simmons isn't lining up a true depth chart, but Williams is working as a gunner again and is watching how last year's guys, wide receiver Kevin Walter and cornerback Reggie Myles, do it.
"I like it. It's a challenge," Williams said. "You're usually going against two guys, and if you can beat them, it shows how much heart you have."
As the 49th player taken in the draft, Ratliff is going to get a nice check. But he'll still do the minimum wage stuff.
"Anything," he said, "to get me on the field as soon as possible."
Any time a team drafts fast linebackers, special teams coaches get excited. So imagine Simmons' delight when the Bengals plucked two of the draft's six fastest linebackers in the third round alone in Arkansas' Caleb Miller and Purdue's Landon Johnson. Both are 225 pounds and have been impressive here with how fast they play. Johnson played wing on the punt team before moving to personal protector as a senior, when he was in charge of getting the offensive line in the right protection to get the punt off. Miller played tackle on the punt team, and Simmons caught him on tape doing some kick coverage at the Hula Bowl.
Johnson, who figured out a lot more tougher things than personal protecting by getting through Purdue with a 3.5 grade point average, has already discerned that teams are handled a bit more differently here.
"Everything is watched," Johnson said. "From how you hit the bags to where you're running. Much more intensity."
Which is no surprise to veteran wide receiver Patrick Johnson. Johnson broke into the league on a Baltimore team in the late '90s in which Simmons was the assistant to special teams legend Scott O'Brien.
"It's pretty much the same system, same structure and Scott is one of the best of the last 15 years," Johnson said.
Johnson is here because Lewis and Simmons remembered that he had some spunk to him as a kick returner, one of the sore spots from last season. The Bengals went from 10th in 2002 to 27th in 2003 kick return average.
The fact the Bengals went out and targeted a kick-off guy to replace free-agent Brandon Bennett also marked a change in departure for a team that might try to create one from the bottom of the roster. But they didn't stop with Johnson in gathering what may be their largest stable of capable return men in recent memory.
Wide receiver Peter Warrick is still No. 1 on punts, but there is also Ratliff, cornerback Deltha O'Neal has done both kicks and punts, and cornerback Terrell Roberts did it in a pinch last season.
"Ratliff is very fluid and very natural at it. Great hands," said one Bengals insider.
Simmons also has his eye on another rookie, Georgia defensive end Robert Geathers, the 6-3, 271-pound fourth-rounder.
"He didn't play them at Georgia, but he's got some speed and he can move down the field. Cover teams are a real possibility for him," Simmons said.
And that may also be true for 5-11, 177-pound cornerback Greg Brooks, the sixth-rounder out of Southern Mississippi. He's also quicking himself into the picture and that's what Simmons covets after the Bengals dropped from No. 4 in the NFL in 2002 in drive start following kickoffs to No. 27 in 2003.
Simmons is the only coach other than Lewis who sits in on both the offensive and defensive evaluation meetings in the week leading up to the draft. He was in on pre-draft interviews of each player the Bengals ended up drafting, and said, "I felt comfortable with all the guys we picked. I feel like they all can help us at some point."
It's hard to grasp how big special teams play in the draft. It's obviously a factor, and Landon Johnson's experience on teams clearly gave him the edge over some other backers, including some at his own school.
"They've already got a grade," Lewis said. "I don't know much that figures into a grade, but you know a guy who has that kind of grade is going to be able to do the things you need on special teams."
So it all gets back to the Lewis brew of speed, speed, and more speed. Coyle, who has been here since 2001, senses the difference up and down the roster.
"After being out here five days in shorts, I'd say (the difference) is pretty significant right now when looking at the overall team," Coyle said. "We're more athletic on the defensive line than we've ever been. I think our linebacking corps has athletes and instinctive players across the board, and a good crew of backup players at that spot, and I think our secondary's overall athleticism has improved. I think we've got more players that can run."