Special finish


Taylor Mays

Skuta. Mays. Miles. Rey.

Now Herron.

They never emerged from a Draft Day green room. They don't do mid-week press conferences. They're never on ESPN or NFL Network. They're at the bottom of the pay scale and the depth chart.

But the men who play for Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons have done as much to get the Bengals to 8-6 and on the brink of the playoffs as the regulars and will have a big say if the Bengals make it with victories over Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final two weeks of the season.

The Ravens are second and the Steelers are ninth in the NFL returning kickoffs. The Ravens are in the top 11 covering both kicks and punts. Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham has missed just one field goal all season.

But the Bengals have been versatile as well as good. Punter Kevin Huber is having a Pro Bowl-type year with the sixth-best net average in the NFL while cornerback Adam Jones has keyed the league's fifth-best punt return game.

And on Thursday night Cincinnati's special teams along with its defense rescued the Bengals from an 11-penalty embarrassment in the 34-13 victory in Philadelphia. Rookie running back Daniel  Herron disrupted a punt for the second time in as many NFL games, safety Taylor Mays recovered a fumble on what amounted to an onside kick, and kicker Josh Brown had two more field goals and four more touchbacks in his flawless replacement of the injured Mike Nugent.

If Simmons has done anything, it's bringing the kids up through a culture of commitment. Linebacker Dan Skuta, the de facto special teams captain, broke in watching veterans like Brandon Johnson, Kyries Hebert and Rashad Jeanty. Now Skuta is there for a guy like Herron, activated for just two games and he's reached the punter in each game.

Lining up on the edge against a blocker in the slot, Herron got a hand on his first punt against the Cowboys, and against the Eagles backed wide receiver Marvin McNutt into the first punt of the night and fell on the block at the Philly 11 to set up Brown's first field goal and a 10-0 lead.

"Skuta has definitely helped me a lot. He's definitely one of our leaders in the special teams room," Herron said last week. "We're right next to each other on punt return and also the meeting room, too. He's been a lot of help."

After serving as Simmons's main guy on the practice squad to simulate the other team's best punt rusher, Herron has quickly gravitated to the game plans. After watching how Herron reached the punt in Dallas, Simmons set up a speed rush.

"He did a good job doing a couple of different things to counteract what he did last week and it showed up on the very first play. He did exactly what he was supposed to do on the first play," Simmons said.

"The technique (McNutt) used to try and block him," said Simmons, who prefers blockers not to be thrown into punters. "He beat the guy in Dallas up and under twice. It was clean. He got the first one and just misses the second one. So I knew (McNutt) would be setting softer and heavier inside to protect against that, so we wanted a speed rush outside, but the guy sat there so he just bulled right over the top of him."

What pleased Simmons as much is that Herron alertly fell on it because the ball was bouncing around live.

"It was a dominating play," Simmons said. "He got after that guy pretty good, takes the guy right back into the punter so it was a real good job, and then for him to have the wherewithal to scoop that ball up. They could advance that ball once it's blocked. They could have advanced it for a first down. It's like a fumble. And he had a couple of tackles on kickoffs, so he did a good job."

Head coach Marvin Lewis is praised for amassing a staff with three highly-regarded coordinators and on Thursday he showed he has no problem taking their advice. During the short week of preparation, Simmons had devised a short, high kickoff to the front line that could cause problems and Lewis was excited about it.

"It's something that we had been contemplating doing. The timing worked out to be good. (Lewis) actually wanted to do it earlier in the game," Simmons said. "'The situation will be better here if we just hang on for another time. Let's hold off on it for a minute and it will be more effective later in the game.'"

Simmons's patience gave him a perfect storm. He had been hoping to get the wind going the right way and with the Eagles fumbling away back-to-back touches, he called it early in the fourth quarter. In practice, Brown had hit it a little wide and when Simmons reminded him before he went on the field Thursday, Brown gave him a veteran's smile and "That's a good idea," and offered a beauty that went through defensive tackle Cedric Thornton's hands and ended up in Mays's at the Eagles 33. (Note Skuta blowing up Thornton just after the ball slid off his chest.) Moments later the Bengals had the turn-out-the-lights-the-party-is-over TD.

"To me there's no bigger momentum-swinger in all of the game of football than a turnover on a kickoff," Simmons said. "You just scored and you're kicking off to them, they get a chance to get the ball back and you take it away from them. That is so deflating to the opposition.

"You could sense (Philly's flagging momentum from a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter). The momentum just flipped real quick. We were in neck deep. And then that barrage of turnovers and barrage of points and you're playing a team, 'Oh, man here we go again' type thing and sometimes you're able to help stick a fork in them. Those guys made a good play there."

With Nugent looking like he can be back for Pittsburgh next week, Simmons sounds like he's lobbying to keep two kickers for the last two games and why not? Nugent hurt his calf 10 days after he nailed a career-long 55-yarder and in two games Brown has been 6-for-6 with a 52-yarder, nine touchbacks, and the perfect pooch.

"You have to ask the head coach about that. I don't make those decisions," Simmons said when asked if there's a kicking competition. "I don't really know yet. Is Mike going to be healthy? The beauty of it is we don't have a decision to make until a week from Sunday. Why can't we go with two? You don't see it very often."

Brown is 23-of-37 beyond 50 yards for better than 60 percent but as Simmons noted, if the Bengals needed a 53-yarder to make the playoffs, "Mike Nugent made a 55-yarder right here a couple of weeks ago. It's a good problem to have."

The irony is that if some people have their way, much of this preceding discussion might be moot. There is a movement underway to eliminate the kickoff because of head injuries. Lewis, a member of the NFL competition committee, weighed in a few weeks ago with the view that moving the kickoff up to the 35 a year ago had been the major change in that direction.

Obviously, Simmons recoils at the idea.

"There was (also) the elimination of the wedge. Now they talk about trying to reduce the number of collisions. They only allow us to line up five yards deep (on coverage) and the restraining line is at the 35. It accomplished what they wanted to, it produced more touchbacks. More plays that you didn't have to cover," Simmons said. "You start taking away the importance of the play and how they can be game-changers. It still is an exciting play. You ask the players, are they going to be for eliminating the kickoff? Hell no."

Simmons wants to see some numbers and he plans to find them. He's a bit mystified that the kickoff in some plans would be replaced by a punt.

"I have to do some study in the offseason what the number of injuries are head injuries versus other injuries," he said. "Is the opportunity there for big collisions? Absolutely. I don't think it's more than any other play. Per play are there more injuries that happen on kickoffs? Yes, but I would be interested to see what types of injuries there are. They can get hurt on any plays. They're talking about replacing kickoffs with a punt play but (the Eagles) had two guys hurt on a punt play."

He's also wondering about something else, too.

"You're potentially trying to eliminate some of the guys that cover kicks, some of the guys that I coach," Simmons said. "These are guys who bust their tail and are often doing double duty. All they do in the kicking game in addition to being backups on offense and defense. I think that's why I have so much respect for those guys. They're not the top-paid guys but yet they're the ones doing the dirty work and all the extra stuff. When you talk about eliminating an opportunity to make a living, are we really doing what's good for the game or are we doing it in response to other things?"

The Skutas. The Mayses. The Mileses. The Reys. And now the Herrons.

In the two biggest games of the years, you won't hear about them until game day.

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