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Special showdown; Secondary in flux again


Darrin Simmons

Updated: 2:40 p.m.

Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons doesn't remember much about that 1994 Cleveland Browns training camp. He was still trying to figure out how to punt for the University of Kansas as he shagged balls for what would turn out to be one of the greatest special teams units in history.

But what Simmons, 40 and in his 11th season coaching the Bengals specialists, can recall is the attention to detail exhibited by the Browns head coach, 42-year-old Bill Belichick, and his longest exposure to the Cleveland special teams coach, Scott O'Brien. Belichick would win his first of 18 playoff games at the end of the season, his fourth in Cleveland, and O'Brien, now in his fifth season as the Pats special teams coach, would become Simmons's mentor, an NFL guru.

"That was a couple of days ago so it's hard to remember," Simmons said this week of a group that had three return TDs and a 92-percent season from kicker Matt Stover. "But they did everything for a reason. They played every situation out and all the options were explored."

Belichick's beginnings in the league (two years after Simmons was born) can be traced to special teams.

"You can tell," Simmons said. "He values field position. Ball control. Give yourself the best opportunity. Make decisions based on situations."

O'Brien brought on Simmons during the end of his run in Baltimore in 1998 and at the start of his tenure in Carolina in 1999. After five seasons with O'Brien, Simmons came to Cincinnati to build a similar model.

"Scott was coming from college when he went to Cleveland and I'm sure what Bill passed on to him was the difference between coaching in the pros compared to college. This is their job. Some of the things that Scott passed on to me; a trickle down," Simmons said.

Sunday is only the second time Simmons and O'Brien have met in the regular season, but Simmons did beat him in the 2009 preseason on a Chad Johnson extra point, 7-6, when Shayne Graham got hurt in New England. They may have laughed about that at the next scouting combine but the 2010 opener never comes up. That's when Pariots wide receiver Brandon Tate scorched the Bengals on a 97-yard kick return to open the second half of Cincinnati's 38-24 loss. Tate now is not only a Bengal and has been for three seasons, but he's the single-season punt return leader.

"If you can't beat 'em," Simmons said, "join 'em."

Simmons did the Belichick-O'Brien school proud last season when his units led the NFL in a combined ranking of the 10 major categories and the Bengals kept them virtually intact until the preseason ended. That's when they lost linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Sean Porter and it snowballed into the opener when Simmons's top player, safety Jeromy Miles, hurt his hamstring in the opener and was eventually lost to waivers.

But Kevin Huber has punted well (12th overall) and the DBs are starting to filter back. Huber is going to have to come up big again with O'Brien lining up another Pats wide receiver, Julian Edelman, a guy that just qualified as the leading career punt returner in NFL history with 13 yards per on 83 returns. Late last season he became the first Patriot to have two 40-plus punt returns in the same game.

INJURY UPDATE: If it's Friday, the Bengals secondary must be in critical condition. But this is a red alert with the NFL's top slot receiver coming to town in the name of New England's Julian Edelman.

Cornerback Leon Hall, the team's best cover player, returned to the field Friday for the first time since he injured his hamstring blocking for cornerback Terence Newman's winning 58-yard fumble return against the Packers back on Sept. 22, but he has been declared doubtful for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium against the Patriots.

Complicating matters is that a week after he played his most snaps as a pro, cornerback Brandon Ghee (thigh) was out Friday after being limited Thursday and is also doubtful. Those are the top two Bengals slot corners. The next man up, Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring), who has played almost as little as Ghee from scrimmage, hasn't played since the second week of the season, went limited Friday and is questionable.

But that's why safety Chris Crocker is here. He also plays the slot and played some of it last Sunday in his first action all year with 23 snaps. Injuries have hounded the career of Kirkpatrick, a 2012 first-rounder. According to Pro Football Focus, Kirkpatrick has played 44 scrimmage snaps in his career, one this season.

The Bengals have already had to deal with the league's most prolific slot guy this season when the Packers' Randall Cobb arrived two weeks ago. Hall was healthy and held him to five catches for 54 yards. According to PFF, Edelman has been targeted 25 times in the slot and caught 21 balls for 142 yards and a touchdown.

And, it looks like right end Michael Johnson (concussion) could miss Sunday after sitting out his third straight practice. He was on the side working, such as riding the stationary bike, a good sign, but head coach Marvin Lewis says it is all up to the NFL's concussion protocol. Johnson's team-best streak of 71 straight games is in jeopardy. Wallace Gilbery, the six-year veteran expected to start in Johnson's place with .5 sacks and nine tackles, figures to play more than his usual nickel packages in Johnson's place.

WILL backer Vontaze Burfict (neck) and SAM backer James Harrsion (knee) were back after missing Thursday and are probable. Burfict went limited Friday and Harrison full. Safety Reggie Nelson (hamstring) went limited as he did all week.

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