Special season in kicking game

Vincent Rey

Back before it all began, before Mohamed Sanu pulled an RGIII on the first snap at FedExField, The Law Firm went through November like Judge Judy through small claims and Leon Lastarza Hall clocked Big Ben, Marvin Lewis had been asked if he had his deepest roster in his 10 seasons as the Bengals head coach. 

An answer may have come six months later with the NFL's final 2012 special teams rankings, where the Bengals finished first in a combination of the 10 most important special teams categories and it wasn't all that close. They finished with 115 points, seven ahead of a bunched top five led by Miami (122), the Vikings (123), the Bills (125) and the 49ers (130).

Yes. It is Lewis's deepest team. At least it is one that had starters good enough to win 10 games and backups good enough to make up the league's most highly-ranked specialists.  

The numbers come out of the teams' ranks in the league in punt return average, kick return average, punt average, net punt average, and field-goal percentage with those same categories on the defensive side of the ball all added together.

For instance, the Bengals finished 11th in punt return, 19th in kick return, 12th in punt average, fourth in net punt average, and 15th in field-goal percentage, as well as defensively sixth in punt return average, 20th in kick return average, eighth in punt average, third in net punt average and 17th in field goal percentage. Those rankings add up to 115.

"It shows you we were solid in most areas. We weren't deficient in any one area," says special teams coach Darrin Simmons. "We were pretty solid and I think that's what you're looking is for consistency and for the most part we had it."

Simmons, in the running for NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year, got a franchise year from punter Kevin Huber, an NFL top seven season from cornerback Adam Jones at punt return, and an AFC Special Teams Player of the Month December from new kicker Josh Brown.

And Simmons also got air-tight coverage from a kickoff cover team that had the second-most tackles inside the 20 in the league with 26 and a punt cover team that helped Huber lead the NFL with punts inside the 5.

Special teams are far from where the stiffs go to play. In the tractor-pull in Pittsburgh last month where every yard meant a playoff berth, the teamers played virtually half the game with 30 snaps while the offense took 65 and the defense 64.

Simmons, of course, isn't pleased with all of it. He's the guy Stevie Wonder had in mind when he sang "Very Superstitious," and he virtually sneers at the numbers. He knows there are more broad-based special teams studies drawing from more categories.

ProFootballFocus.com, a web site that grades film, rates the Bengals special teams second behind Baltimore and ahead of the Vikings, Broncos and Dolphins. Going by the top 10 rankings, the Ravens are tied for eighth and the Broncos are 18th.

Simmons also remembers Denver's Trindon Holliday running past him and catching up with Mercury Morris on the opening kickoff of the second half for the longest kick return ever against the Bengals. Morris's 105-yard scorcher came in 1969, four years before Simmons was born.

"Can you imagine where we would have finished if we don't let that happen?" Simmons asks. "We can't let that happen. You can't let up a touchdown on a kickoff. After that kick we did become better."

Simmons also wants more "explosion and big plays in kick returns" and fewer penalties. The Bengals only averaged 22.6 yards per return with wide receiver Brandon Tate taking 32 of 41 with the longest going for 45 yards. The 21 penalties are too much, Simmons says.

But don't get Simmons wrong. He'd love to keep these guys intact. The Bengals did that last season and he thinks it's a major reason the Bengals had such a solid season. His core players, linebacker and de facto teams captain Dan Skuta, linebacker Vinnie Rey and safety Jeromy Miles have been together since 2010. All of them played 24 of the special teams' 30 snaps in Pittsburgh, a typical workload, and for the season Skuta (17), Miles (15) and Rey (12) led the Bengals in special teams tackles.

With Huber, Skuta, Jones and long-snapper Clark Harris scheduled to be free agents and the Bengals about to make a decision on pursuing Brown or Mike Nugent, look for them to make a series of these signings that may not make headlines or bank deposits but are going to go a ways in shoring up a third straight playoff run.

"As we saw a few years ago," Simmons says, "it's a hard deal when you start all over."

Last spring Simmons was perhaps the most vociferous supporter for bringing Jones back and it paid off. And Simmons would love him back.

"Not just because of what he does with the ball in his hands," Simmons says, "but because what other teams do to keep it away from him. The guy is a force out there."

And take a good look at who finished fifth in special teams tackles. Like the undrafted rookie Skuta who came off the practice squad for eight of the last 12 games and contributed 10 special teams tackles in the '09 playoff run, rookie free-agent linebacker Emmanuel Lamur came off the practice squad in the final eight games this season and had eight tackles.

"He's got some promise," Simmons says.

 ZIMMER SKED: Reports have Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer interviewing in Cleveland on Thursday and later in San Diego for their head coaching jobs. After his third top 10 finish (sixth) in the NFL rankings in his five seasons in Cincinnati, Bengals cornerback Terence Newman, the guy that has known Zimmer the longest, gave him an endorsement.

"I think he'd do great. It's kind of an enigma how he's not a head coach already," Newman said this week. "His track record speaks volumes. It's just one of those things where you have to get an opportunity; you have to get a chance. If there's any coach right now that's deserving, I think it would be him. He's won Super Bowls. He's led great defenses. He's led great teams. So, with that being said, he's well deserving."

It's believed offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is interviewing in Arizona on Thursday for the Cardinals head coaching job.

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