Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis set the template for 2014 in the wee hours after 2013 imploded in turnovers.
"We didn't take care of the ball well enough as an offensive football team this season," Lewis said the day after 34 turnovers ravaged his team's season. "We have to have it be a point of emphasis moving forward."
What better way to cut down on the offensive mistakes than relying more on the battle-tested Bengals defense and special teams? Only one starter is unsigned off the NFL's No. 3 defense (right end Michael Johnson) and every specialist but one is wrapped up for a unit that finished six points out of the top 10 in a compilation of the league's 10 major special teams categories.
"It just goes to show you," special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said on Monday as he continues to grade the cutups with assistant Brayden Coombs, "how one play can destroy everything. You have to be good all the time."
Last year the Bengals finished first in those top 10 categories and looked like they were going to follow it up with a remarkable top five finish despite losing what amounted to their co-captains as well as two projected every fourth-down players who never took a snap. Punter Kevin Huber staked his claim as one of the club's most valuable players with tremendous late clutch kicking, kicker Mike Nugent ended two games with field goals including a club-tying 54-yard winner, and wide receiver Brandon Tate finished sixth in the AFC in both kick and punt returns.
But then came not one, but two hell weeks back-to-back in the kicking game. In the 14th game of the season in Pittsburgh, Huber broke his jaw during the first punt return for a TD against the Bengals in two seasons to punctuate a loss against the Steelers. The next week against the Vikings with a shaky punter, the Bengals gave up a 22-yard punt return as well as four monstrous kick returns by Pro Bowl rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. The Bengals still won and their special teams lived to play well the next week in a win over the Ravens, but their stats died and Simmons had his teaching points for the offseason.
"We kind of went through this year what we went through in 2010 when we took our lumps," Simmons said. "It helped us the next couple of years. We strive for consistency and for the most part we were consistent. We had some young guys that stepped up and found their way halfway through the season. We were fortunate it didn't kill us in the beginning of the season. They kind of gave you some experienced, veteran productive-type guys in the middle (of the season) and that's what you have to build on."
The 10 categories consist of punt return average (for and against), kick return average (for and against), gross and punt net average (for and against), and field-goal percentage for and against.
New England's rankings added up to a league-low of 106, followed by the other top five clubs of Baltimore (110), Jacksonville (113), San Francisco (117) and St. Louis with 124. Cincinnati's ranking of 154 was tied for 12th with Carolina, within six points of the clubs tied for ninth (Pittsburgh and Chicago) at 148, as well as Miami (149) and Minnesota (152).
Simmons believes that's a testament to the leadership of running back Cedric Peerman and linebacker Vincent Rey, voted special teams captains by their teammates in the absence of Dan Skuta and Jeromy Miles. Skuta, a second-year player in that formative 2010 season, left last spring in free agency. Miles, a rookie in 2010, was the victim of a roster crunch after this year's opener and ended up in Baltimore. The pair took the most special teams tackles and experience, but Peerman and Rey, like Skuta and Miles before them, brought along the kids. Rookie safety Shawn Williams and rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche, with 14 and 12, respectively, had the most special teams tackles.
"That's a very hard thing—to replace that leadership in the locker room and I tip my hat to Ced and Vinny; they did it," Simmons said. "These young guys like the Shawn Williamses and the Jayson DiManches have to keep coming on."
Peerman is heading into the second year of a two-year deal. Rey is a restricted free agent. Tate is the only specialist who is an unrestricted free agent and the Bengals think they'll be able to re-sign him, putting everyone back on special teams but free-agent-to-be safety Taylor Mays, another guy the Bengals would like to re-sign. But while that No. 3 defense is looking to add the injured Geno Atkins and Leon Hall so, too, is Simmons looking to add some key guys off the injury list.
Nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, a speedy 6-4, 240 pounder who was made for special teams, had eight special teams tackles in his nine games as a rookie in 2012 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the 2013 preseason finale. Also lost for the year in the preseason was another young linebacker projected to play every special teams snap in fourth-rounder Sean Porter.
"I can play anywhere, Coach," Lamur has been telling Simmons. "I returned kicks and punts in high school. I can be a gunner. Anywhere, Coach."
Simmons enjoys the sentiments, but Lamur won't see any of those spots. Don't forget that Simmons's best gunner, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, missed the first eight games of the season.
"The core should be back; the key is to keep them together," Simmons said. "We were really good in 2011 and better in 2012 because of continuity from 2010. We built on that. If you're able to keep that core group together, you get a chance to be really good."
But Simmons wants the kids to push the kids. He's got an eye on two practice-squadders from last season, speed-speed-and-more-speed cornerback Onterio McCalebb and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, as well as a roster rookie active for just one game, running back Rex Burkhead. He knows rookie defensive end Margus Hunt is going to play more than his 10 games this past year and Simmons is going to try to exploit his NCAA-record 10 blocked field goals.
"We've got to get Margus Hunt better," Simmons said. "He's going to get criticized (for not blocking any this year), but when you look at the film you see how close he came to getting a couple. A lot of times it was set up for Carlos (Dunlap), who is very good, too. He's got three blocks in two years."
The idea, Simmons says, is to keep them coming. Last year, No. 12. This year?
"Continuity," he said.