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Special Teams And Defense Answer The Call For Bengals

Von Bell had a big fumble recovery.
Von Bell had a big fumble recovery.

Joe Judge, the Giants head coach, is one of these special teams gurus nurtured at the foot of the knight of the kicking game himself. William Stephen Belichick.

But on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, the NFL's longest tenured special teams coach with a sterling pedigree of his own, very nearly ran the Giants out of first place in the NFC East and on to the back pages of the New York sports sections. The Bengals played a devastating game of field position that included a successful fake punt on fourth down.

And in the process, Simmons and all corners of the Bengals roster sent a message about the status of the locker room after a week of speculation fit for a tabloid.

After defending NFL kick return champion Brandon Wilson used blocks from rookies and veterans alike to pull off the longest play in Bengals history with a 103-yard kick return five minutes into the game that kept them in it all day, punt returner Alex Erickson put them in position to win it with a skittering 29-yarder that put them at midfield with a minute left needing just a field goal.

"It was everything that I ever needed to see from these guys, and everything I see every day," said head coach Zac Taylor. "You're down 19-10 in the fourth quarter, and the offense hasn't done anything the entire game, but the offense kept grinding and trying to make the plays they're capable of making. You look at it. The defense got a huge stop, the offense goes down and gets seven points, (and) the defense gets a monster stop there on a backed-up situation. The punt return team gets a huge punt return and puts your offense in a position to go win the game."

Simmons' guys knew they had to be special. So did defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his players late in a traumatic season their unit has been pulverized by change and injury.

With the offense still looking for its first points since Joe Burrow went down last week early in the second half and COVID quarterback Brandon Allen promoted from the practice squad to starter, the other phases knew the Bengals needed an unconventional score or a big turnover.

They got both.

Veteran strong safety Vonn Bell, who seems to play better the more they need him, made a huge play early in the second quarter in a 7-7 game. The offense was feeling its way but they were tied because of Wilson and Bell kept it that way when Giants tight end Evan Engram was all set to settle inside the red zone at the end of an 18-yard play. But Bell stuck his hand in to knock the ball out of his arms and picked it up all in the same motion to get it nearly to midfield. A few plays later, instead of being down 14-7, the Bengals were up 10-7.

It was not lost on the fiery Bell that the Giants had seven because the biggest play of their only touchdown drive was on a 53-yarder where Engram got behind Bell on third-and-two.

"It was in the call. I was playing outside third and just made a play," Bell said. "Just being instinctive, getting the ball out, getting the ball off them, getting the ball up and trying to score. Just getting as much as I can to help the offense and put them in position to score, and that's what we did. We got three out of that and it was a ballgame. I'm just trying to make plays for the team as much as I possibly can. Making up for my third down."

That's Bell practicing what he preaches. Next play. No problem if the offense is struggling.

"My old coach used to tell me, 'it's more TV time for us.' You just got to go out there and make yourself and your family happy, play for the teammates next to you and just go out there and showcase your talents," Bell said. "Just show the nation your talents and go out there and make plays. It's always next-play mentality."

Bell, a week after logging a career-high 14 tackles and plenty of TV time, led the team again with 10 tackles Sunday and he had plenty of help from two other veteran free agents when they overwhelmed Giants back-up quarterback Colt McCoy after Daniel Jones left early in the second half with a hamstring injury. Middle linebacker Josh Bynes knocked down two passes and had a tackle for a loss while slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander had three passes defensed. After the Giants went 6-11 on third down in the first half, they went 3-10 the rest of the way.

"I feel like we did a great job in moments. I wish we could have did it better," Bynes said. "Limit some yards, especially on third down, get off the field and give the offense back the ball. Get off the field and not extend the play as much. But for the most part I think guys were fighting, especially at the last minute. Fighting and clawing and try to get any stop we can so we can get the offense back the ball and get them in position to win the game for us so we have a different feeling than we have right now."

Bynes was much appreciative of Wilson's work and the rest of the special teamers.

"I think special teams did a heckuva job today and did what they were supposed to do," Bynes said. "We can't have it where one plays better and the other two phases play bad or all three phases play bad. We have to be more consistent to get these Ws."

Wilson, who had a big tackle on the opening kickoff, used his 4.3 40 speed to outrun everybody and through the kicker as if he was moving a branch to peer into the forest. But not before they opened a wide lane for him up the gut.

On the left it was Captain Shawn Williams, who would later run the fake punt for seven yards and a first down, and rookie end Khalid Kareem. On the right it was veteran tight end Cethan Carter on one level and on the next level it was rookie linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson working a double team.

And Brandon Wilson was gone again.

But he came back in the final embers of the game to help Erickson with a block. So did Williams. But the best play may have been the best block never made by safety Jessie Bates III, who let his man run past him and Erickson catching the punt as Bates made sure everyone saw him throw up his arms in surrender.

But on his longest punt return in two years, Erickson did most of it himself. He sloughed off one tackler with straight-arm as he moved to the right to pick up Williams and Davis-Gaither, and two others fell off the would-be tackler.

It seemed everyone was in on Sunday.

"That tells you everything you need to know about these players in this locker room, and everything that I see every day and know," Taylor said. "They're playing hard for each other, and it's going to turn for us I know at some point. I told them it's frustrating. You're sick to your stomach, it sucks. It's not fun to lose … But we know that this tide is going to turn for us and we're going back look back on this."