Take two plays from late in the third quarter of last week’s pre-season opener and this is why the Bengals traded up to the sixth round to take Houston safety Brandon Wilson a year ago and stayed where they were this year to take Western Michigan cornerback Darius Phillips, their last of three fifth-round picks at No. 170.
Speed for one. Special teams for another. They’re also a few reasons special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons felt good after the opener. Which isn’t always the case. Like last year.
“I don’t know if we’re fast. But we’re faster,” Simmons said before Monday’s practice.
They didn’t have Wilson until the middle of last season because of a knee injury, but by the end of the year he was fourth in teams tackles and showed the sub- 4.4 speed that would have made him the fastest safety at his scouting combine if invited. They didn’t have Phillips, a rookie who set the FBS record with 12 return touchdowns at Western. And they just got cornerback C.J. Goodwin a few days before the opener, a basketball transplant and Super Bowl special teams veteran who GPSed out Thursday as one of the fastest Bengals on the kick teams.
“Solid,” is how Simmons rated his unit’s overall performance after his guys decisively won field positon a game decided by a field goal. “You’ve got to remember, we’re not evaluating players, but schemes.”
But the first thing he wants his speed and it was on display a heck of a lot earlier than last year.
Wilson didn’t make Thursday’s game-saving tackle on a kick, but you got the idea when he chased down lumbering Bears running back Ryan Nall on the sideline at the end of a 69-yard run on the Bengals 13. If not for Wilson, Nall walks in for seven points. Instead the Bengals held the Bears to a field goal when quarterback Tyler Bray couldn’t throw a pass in the air.
“If I had taken a better angle, I probably wouldn’t have had to chase him down like that,” said Wilson before Monday’s practice and he laughed when asked if he made the play out of sheer anger. “I just knew I took a bad angle when I got close to him and when I realized that I took it. I just kicked it in.”
Wilson not only showed speed, but the resilient mindset all coaches love.
“We won the game by how many? Three points?” Wilson checked. “When you make a mistake, you just have to go to the next play and just play the next one. You just really can’t think on it.”
Although Phillips has been struggling with the trials and tribulations of adjusting to the lethal life of an NFL corner, he didn’t let that faze him in the return game. After Wilson forced the Bears to kick a field goal, Phillips took the next kickoff and showed some big-league moves. He broke a linebacker’s tackle shrugging him off his hips as he cut, and then made two wide receivers and a DB miss their tackles when they should have got him on their first try for a 27-yard gain.
“He showed a little juice,” Simmons said. “He’s kind of what we thought when he has the ball in his hands. He’s got knack to make guys miss in space.”
Maybe the most intriguing guy emerging out of the opener for Simmons is the newly-arrived Goodwin. Because of the basketball background (he only played two years of college football), everyone knows he’s an athlete. But two years ago he was second on the Falcons in special teams tackles and made one in the Super Bowl. On Thursday he played with the eye-opening speed of an athlete that’s been there, done that and Simmons immediately put him in the roster derby.
“For the limited amount of preparation,” Simmons said, “he showed that he’s a veteran who has played some games. He’s in the thick of it.”