Posted: 7:55 a.m.
Defense. Special teams. On offense, run the ball, control the clock, and if the Bengals get a shot downfield, take a shot without shooting themselves in the foot.
Marvin Lewis heads into his 100th regular-season game as a head coach Sunday on the big lake in Cleveland and one gets the distinct impression he is enjoying his seventh Bengals team so much because he feels it is the one that has most of the elements to win over the long haul.
Defense. Special teams. A more versatile yet bread-and-butter offense that can respond with the run if the defense takes away its dangerous passing game.
The critics are down on the offense because it grinds now instead of explodes, but Lewis reminded them Friday, ?That team didn?t win one playoff game.?
Special teams have played a bigger role this season than at any point in Lewis? run. So big in the 2-1 start that one could make an argument for rookie punter Kevin Huber and rookie punt returner Quan Cosby getting the team MVP votes behind NFL sack leader Antwan Odom.
And others would say the only way the Bengals can make the big mistake on the lake Sunday to a Cleveland team that is last in offense and almost last in defense is to let the incomparable Josh Cribbs loose on special teams. His big kick return early in the 2007 game in Cleveland set the tone for a chaotic game in which the Browns rung up 51 points and he?s already returned a punt for a touchdown.
Indeed, with the wind predicted to swirl at 15 to 20 miles per hour in quirky Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cribbs and Cosby separated by .3 yards atop AFC punt returns, and Huber tied for the NFL lead with eight punts inside the 20, special teams figure to go a long way in deciding this one.
The Bengals have the third best punt return average in the NFL, the Browns the second. The Bengals have the leading punt net average in the league, the Browns are second.
Throw into the mix the struggles of Bengals long snapper Brad St. Louis along with two fake punts in the first three games and Sunday has more back stories than David Letterman.
?This is the kind of game that I really get up for,? said safety Kyries Hebert, who gets up for them all as the Bengals special teams captain. ?You want to go against the best and (Cribbs) is one of the best. You play your best against him and you know you?re going to play well. That gets me going. Gets me really pumped up.?
Once upon a time, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons cut his teeth with the 1994 Browns as a college punter during the summer helping out his uncle on head coach Bill Belichick?s staff. It is viewed by many as the greatest special teams unit of all time, in large part because of Eric Metcalf, a guy that had two touchdown returns in Cleveland against the Bengals that year.
Simmons holds Cribbs in similar regard and not only as a returner. He believes Cribbs should have made the Pro Bowl last year as a cover player. He covets big, physical play, just like what he gets out of Hebert.
?(Cribbs) is probably the most physical guy we?ll play,? Hebert said. ?He?s got a mean stiffarm. Great vision. He?s just as tough on punts as he is kicks. He?s dangerous on kicks when he sets a pick and then bounces it out the back door. I mean, he drops a few steps one way and then goes the other way. You have to respect that because he?s such a strong runner. You don?t want him to go north and south, you have to play that and then he bounces it on you. You have to respect everything. You have to stay in your lanes and be disciplined.
?Same thing with punt returns,? Hebert said. ?You?ve got to treat him like a running back. You?ve got to wrap him up. A lot of returns are light, they?re going to go down if you get a hand on them. Not Cribbs.?
One of the reasons Simmons wanted Huber in the fifth round is because of the kid?s demeanor and he?s shown all of that in three tight games. He?s always been known to hit a few clunkers along the way (a price for such a huge leg) but not down the stretch. Simmons can?t wait to see how Huber responds Sunday.
?We were down there on the field two years ago during pregame warmups and Phil Dawson and Shayne Graham, two NFL kickers, were short on 35-yard field goals,? said Simmons, leery of the wind.
Huber, who has done all his high school and college kicking for Cincinnati teams, has oddly never punted in Cleveland and isn?t sure what to expect. Simmons knows what Huber has to do against Cribbs.
?Constrict the field,? he said. ?Kick it down the middle and as effective and as dangerous as he is, you just can?t do it.?
?You can?t point to one guy,? said Huber, when asked about the MVP votes. ?Especially on special teams. You've got the gunners, the guys making tackles, the guys protecting you.?
Hebert looks at the stats and knows they don?t lie.
?We?ve given up 17 yards in punt returns and he?s a big part of that,? Hebert said. ?He?s our guy. I like it as a gunner because when he gets that ball hanging in the air, it gives me time to work through the vice. He?s got a lot of composure. You figure a young guy thrown into the fire like that wouldn?t be, but he?s got it.?
Hebert also says the Bengals special teams have gotten a lift from the other rookie, Cosby, who has been huge the past two weeks in the fourth quarter. His 32-yarder in Green Bay set up Graham?s 40-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 10-point lead with under two minutes left, and his 17-yarder last Sunday made the last drive against Pittsburgh 71 yards instead of 85.
?When I saw where the ball was,? Cosby said, ?I was thinking, ?That?s close enough for Carson.? ??
?The thing about Quan,? Simmons said, ?is he gets the ball upfield ... and the guys are really blocking. ... That was a 51-yard punt and (17)-yard return. I?ll take that all the time.?
He noted that on that final return, the Steelers left gunner had been pushed on to the Bengals sideline by the vice tandem of defensive backs Chinedum Ndukwe and Geoff Pope.
?The Browns have some good gunners, too,? said Simmons, alluding to defensive back Mike Adams. ?And, who knows, Cribbs could be out there. That?s where he first made his mark, as a gunner covering.?
But with Cribbs starting at wide receiver, he?s not covering as much, although Simmons noted he returned last week in Baltimore to cover after not doing it in the first two games.
While Simmons has been spending much of his time this week preparing for Cribbs, he?s also spent time dealing with St. Louis. The 10-year long snapper, known for his numbing consistency that he has blended into the locker room d?cor, has had two high costly snaps. One of them cost the Bengals a field goal against Denver and maybe the game. The other one came last week on an extra point against Pittsburgh, forcing the Bengals to score a touchdown and not a field goal that would send the game to overtime.
?It?s a huge concern,? Simmons said. ?Brad?s been a guy that?s been around for a long time. He?s a guy the guys trust a lot. Mentally, Brad has to know the whole team is behind him, that everybody is behind him. Think of all the (good) snaps he?s had in 10 years ... he has to get back to his experience and the times he?s been successful.
?I don?t think he can explain it. I can?t explain it. Everyone comes to count on it ... when things go wrong, you can?t panic. You have to relax and do your job. That?s not an easy thing. I think he?ll be fine ... there are some (technical) things that are correctable. ... I hope they work overnight, but in reality sometimes they take time.?
The Bengals don?t have a lot of time in an AFC North that is already tight with Pittsburgh at 1-2 and St. Louis, not a loquacious sort to begin with, long ago adopted the long snapper?s mantra.
?You have worry about the next one,? St. Louis said.
And Simmons is already thinking about the next fake punt. Running back Brian Leonard ran a fourth-down out of a shotgunnish formation in the opener and safety Chris Crocker took one out of punt formation for 21 yards when he got a look he saw and called his own number.
?(It's possible to do that) in the kicking game when you have some key guys that have been together for awhile and they can feel those type of things,? Simmons said.
Asked if he used up his allotment on fakes just three games into the season, Simmons laughed.
?I like those plays,? he said.
He knows his players will be in plenty of big ones Sunday.