Special Teams Gets Added Kick In Senior Bowl Student-Pupil Matchup

Darrin Simmons (right) and Brayden Coombs under a Senior Bowl goal post this week.
Darrin Simmons (right) and Brayden Coombs under a Senior Bowl goal post this week.

MOBILE, Ala. - Brayden Coombs, the Lions' brand new special teams coordinator and therefore the man guiding the North's kicking game in Saturday's Senior Bowl (2:30-p.m.-NFL Network), shook his head in front of the goal post shortly after one practice this week.

He had just watched his kicker, Georgia Southern's Tyler Bass, bang a 58-yarder off the left upright and Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simons was telling him to look how far up the pipe it hit. Simmons, regarded as one of the best if not the best teams coach in the league, tuned up for the all-star college football classic showdown with his pupil, by showing up for the South practice just in time to see the kicks. So he was showing Coombs why Bass' tries were sailing away from the middle.

(And we won't say why because Simmons covets secrets like on-side kick recoveries.)

"From 60 yards away," Coombs said, "he somehow knew exactly how the kid's placement was."

Coombs has been absorbing these kinds of invisible tips for the last seven seasons as Simmons' assistant, but there's not very much that could prepare him for facing his mentor with players he met a few days ago in his second week on the job.

"He'll be fine. He was raised right," Simmons said. "It's tough circumstances getting thrown into the fire right away and trying to control everything with a minimum of time. He's a smart guy. He'll figure it out."

But Simmons, known as one of the game's great needlers, has had a hard time busting Coombs this week.

"He's got his hands full," Simmons said. "Let him do his thing."

Coombs is doing his thing in Detroit because of the way he was raised in Cincinnati. Lions head coach Matt Patricia spent six seasons with Simmons' mentor in New England, Scott O'Brien.

"My guy," Patricia said. "I love the history of the game. I love the lineage of it."

O'Brien, born in 1957, Simmons, born in 1973, and Coombs, born in 1987, are three generations of the painstaking kicking games approach encouraged by old school head coaches like the Patriots' Bill Belichick, the Ravens' John Harbaugh, the Chiefs' Andy Reid and former Bengals head man Marvin Lewis because it can be so devastating if not paid proper attention.

Not a lot went right for the Bengals offense and defense last season, but Simmons and Coombs guided the Bengals to the No. 1 special teams ranking by football outsiders.com, a web site many in the industry believe is the weekly standard for the kicking game.

"Brayden did a great job in the interview process and Darrin is someone I have the utmost respect for," Patricia said Friday. "He comes from a coaching tree I believe in. I think (Simmons) is an outstanding, unbelievable, amazing coach. I know he's done a great job with Brayden educating him and training him during the course of the years. Certainly it's a big comfort level for me to have that kind of background."

Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium doesn't exactly have the makings of a showdown between kicking games. It's an all-star game for Pro Bowl's sake. By rule there are no on-side kicks (replaced by the offense needing to convert fourth-and-15 to get the ball back), no fake kicks or punts, no PATs in the second quarter when all touchdowns must be followed by two-point tries and each team can only kick off once. Punt return teams can't even double team gunners.

"Because of the rules, I don't know how many special teams plays there are going to be," Simmons said. "Maybe a lot of field goals and extra points.

"It's the kind of week I'm just trying to make sure we get 11 guys on the field. It's hard enough to remember everyone's name."

Coombs isn't buying it.

"Super ironic," Coombs said of his first assignment. "As we know he's competitive as hell and he's going to try and kick my butt and that makes me work that much harder.

"There's a lot more to the kicking game than on-side kicks and fake punts, right?" Coombs said. "However simple it is it's still going to come down to execution. That's the challenge this week. We're not trying to come up with a great scheme, a great game plan. We're trying to make sure we've got guys that know where to line up, know what to do and how to do it. And do it a thousand miles an hour. We'll find the guys that play the hardest. Those are the guys we'll have out there and then it's on them."

Coombs says Simmons has taught him about 95 percent of what he knows about the kicking game. So it's not going to be a stunner how he deploys people out there Saturday when he uses the one system he knows.

"I didn't really have time to put my own stuff in there, but I got it ready in time," Coombs says. "That's how I've spent most of my time is transferring it.

 "He taught me to prepare for every possible scenario and if you don't prepare for it ahead of time then it's going to be sloppy and you get caught with your pants down. We went through every possible thing that could happen every day and nine times out of ten some of that stuff didn't happen. But when it did we prepared for it and think that showed in the way our guys executed."

If it sounds like Simmons, it does. The 23-year NFL vet is also preaching simplicity in the anti-Cheers game. Not everyone knows everyone's name.

"The big thing is to keep it super simple," Simmons said. "Our time with them was very limited. Keep it simple. Simple and let them play fast with a basic frame work."

Simmons usually comes out of this game with someone he's coached. In 2004 he brought home Nebraska punter Kyle Larson from the North squad and when he came back here in 2009 with the North he replaced him with Kevin Huber.

Now Huber is the Bengals all-time leading punter and he'd like to kick to 40 after coming off his best season in five years. But South Carolina punter Joseph Charlton better stay alive, anyway. And cover guys, too. Virginia running back Cedric Peerman, a member of that 2009 North team, was claimed off waivers in 2010 and became Simmons' captain or co-captain for most of the five play-off teams. 

"Sure, spending the week with them, I knew what they were. That was absolutely a part of it," Simmons said of the impact of coaching the punters this week before selecting them. "You get to answer a lot of questions about these guys. Can they follow directions? What type of speed, what type of lateral movement? What type of quickness do they have?"

Coombs knows Simmons is going to be quick.

"It's been hectic," Coombs said under the goal post. "There are a lot of people watching. There's pressure, but I like that. It forces you to respond."