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Special delivery to top of the AFC North


Tony Dye

That Bengals depth they keep talking about (and "they" ranges from scouts to pundits to the players themselves) couldn't have stepped forward at a more crucial juncture in a season that seemed to be slipping away like, well, a blocked punt.

The best measurement of depth is that roster dance called special teams and in Sunday's desperate second quarter with the AFC North on the line they delivered 17 of the franchise-record 31 points to ignite the 41-20 victory over Cleveland at Paul Brown Stadium.  

"Two rookies come in and block punts; that's amazing," said safety Tony Dye, still amazed that he had scored a touchdown in his first NFL game. "That lifts the team."

No more amazing than what this special teams group has achieved despite the cavalcade of change in a season that began when the unit lost its two top returning players, Dan Skuta and Jeromy Miles, in an effort to shore up other spots, and has continued with the spate of injuries.

"It wasn't the Super Bowl; we made a couple of plays," said special teams coach Darrin Simmons. "It's good to see these guys grow up in front of us quite a bit. You never weather the storm. I never feel like you weather the storm. Are the worst times behind us? I hope so. In the job I have you never weather the storm."

Take Saturday, when it became clear that safety Chris Crocker (hamstring) couldn't play. The Bengals promoted Dye, a first-year player, from the practice squad to replace cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris so they could have enough safeties. Lewis-Harris hasn't been active lately and Simmons admitted, "That spot has been fluid. We've had to maneuver and massage guys around quite a bit."

The club told Dye he might get the call earlier in the week.

"It's been quite the roller coaster," Dye said. "I came into the week expecting maybe the same old practice squad stuff, watching the Browns so I can get their technique down. ... From there you just have to prepare like you're going to play, regardless if you're not."

Oh, Dye played Sunday. He hadn't been in a game since 2011, that nightmarish senior season at UCLA when he didn't know he played the first three games with a herniated neck disk and realized how bad it was when his arm went numb opening doors.

"It's been a long road," said Dye, whose shot to get drafted got shot with the injury.

And last year he injured his anke in training camp in the first week and missed the rest of the yer on injured reserve. When Dye got cut after playing in every preseason game this year, he was on the street until the Bengals called him to the practice squad when the injuries began to hit them after the Sept. 22 Green Bay win.

But there were only 24 yards left in the jounrey. That's how long Dye ran with rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche's blocked punt for a touchdown after picking it up on the third try to give the Bengals a 21-13 lead with 4:35 left in the second quarter. Then he had to wait for a review to see if punter punter Spencer Lanning brushed him as Dye got up off the ground.

"I was just trying to catch my breath; I didn't know they were reviewing it," Dye said. "Then I was just waiting for the cheers and boos."

All cheers on this day. Dye wasn't even one of Simmons's two rookies. DiManche, moving into the role of Skuta and Miles as an undrafted special teams staple, came into the game tied with linebacker Vinny Rey for the team lead with eight special teams tackles. On Sunday he found himself celebrating his first blocked punt since his high school days in New Jersey. Moments before, third-round pick Shawn Williams, the Georgia safety, deflected a punt that bounced eight yards and set up the Bengals go-ahead score with 11:49 left in the second quarter.

Think back on this season and imagine where the Bengals would be without special teams. Kevin Huber's punt against New England. Brandon Tate's overtime punt return in Buffalo. Mike Nugent's field goal at the gun in Detroit.

"It's always about field position and momentum. Things didn't start out the way we wanted. When you get opportunities to make plays, these guys can help change that," Simmons said. "You can see it ignites the team and the crowd. You get plays from guys you don't expect."

DiManche has been expecting it. At least for the last two weeks. He's written at the end of his iPad notes each player hands into Simmons each week, "Block a punt to help win the game." This week he did when Simmons lined him up on the edge and looped him inside where the free agent from Southern Illinois beat the sixth pick in the draft, Browns rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo.

"We knew they were a little slower than some of the punters we faced. We knew we had the opportunity to get back there," DiManche said. "Darrin sees everything. He noticed that and we took advantage of it. I came from the outside, up and under. Every team does it. Darrin moves us around all over to get confusion on the punt team. It was a great call … fake to the outside and come up and under."

Simmons wasn't too sure if Lanning was more deliberate than most, but he thought the rain and wind slows down punters because they concentrate on catching the snap.

"We just beat guys," Simmons said. "That's all there was to it. Make a play … we beat them."

That's what Williams did when he simply beat the man across him from the line of scrimmage to the inside.

"There was no secret formula to what we did. We went in with the mentality if one guy can get free and make a block, that changes the momentum of the game and not wait for somebody to make something happen," Williams said. "It was one skilled guy against a lesser skilled guy and I just beat him up the field with a rush."

But the day didn't belong to just Simmons's kids. Remember cornerback Adam Jones? He hasn't been returning punts much since Leon Hall went down with an Achilles tear a month ago and he became a starting corner. But when Simmons knew Jones wasn't going back on the field in the final minute of the first half, he sent him back there and Jones wasn't going to let that go by.

Jones caught it at his 41 and thought about going back door, but he reversed field toward his blocking and ripped off a 27-yarder that resulted in Nugent's 41-yard field goal with a second left.

"The most important thing is he trusted the play; he went back to where he was supposed to go," Simmons said.

On Sunday, it was in special teams we trust and Dye was still trying to take it all in an hour after the game. For the longest while he stood in his pads wearing his No. 44 talking to the media. And it's a good thing because that's how one of the other heroes of the day, James Harrison, knew who he was.

"Who?" Harrison asked. "Oh, 44."

Dye shook his head.

"It's surreal. You never expect anything like that to happen in a game. Let alone your first game."

Which is maybe why they call it special teams.

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