The Bengals hope they don't have to wait very long to reap the benefit of keeping virtually their entire special teams intact during the offseason. The first punt of the year they cover live Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) comes against the NFL's all-time leader in Chicago's now-you-see-him-now-you-don't Devin Hester and his 12 touchdowns.
But the Bengals have something going for them, too. Not only do they have the NFL's second-most active prolific punt returner with Adam Jones's five TDs. From punter Kevin Huber to long snapper Clark Harris to their 2-3-4 leading tacklers anchored by safety Jeromy Miles, they have pretty much the same cover unit that led the NFL in punts downed inside the 5. That was on their way to leading the league in the rankings of the combined top 10 special teams categories.
With the departure of de facto special teams captain Dan Skuta to free agency, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons still has three core guys in Miles, running back Cedric Peerman and linebacker Vincent Rey. All made the roster in tight fights in which their special teams prowess was one of the final factors.
"They have to play us, too," Simmons says. "I never feel great, but I feel confident. It wouldn't have been good to go against one of the best in the business with young, inexperienced guys. We have to rely on our guys' experience and leadership in games against big returners."
There is a big guy missing in injured wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, the gunner opposite Miles, and the Bengals need cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to come up big in his place. Kirkpatrick excelled in the role at Alabama, but hasn't done much of it here. Plus, Simmons is trying to figure out how to replace rangy linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, out for the year. And, with safety Taylor Mays taking a lot of Lamur's snaps in the nickel package, Simmons has to figure out how that impacts Mays's special teams work.
But that's the life on special teams. It's always something.
Last year the Bengals No. 1 ranking survived two games each against Baltimore's Jacoby Jones, Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, and the year before they held Arizona wizard Patrick Peterson to one fair catch in the game that basically locked up a playoff spot.
In the last minute of that Arizona game, Miles dropped Andre Roberts for a one-yard loss from his gunner spot and that's the kind of play the Bengals need to get Sunday.
"(Hester) is more seasoned than Peterson, but he's the same kind of returner," Miles said. "The ball goes in the air and you hold your breath. Hester is fast, he's got world-class speed, and he's savvy, crafty. He's an all-around returner."
While the offense and defense religiously guard their strategies, everyone knows what Huber is going to try and do Sunday.
"Some guys return different ways. Hester is very quick, Cribbs is more of a power guy," Huber says. "Each time you're trying to get good hang time toward the sideline. There's just more of an emphasis sometimes more than others."
This is one of those times. And more than it was the only time the Bengals and Hester met before Sunday. It was in Cincinnati's 45-10 win at Paul Brown Stadium in the Cedric (Benson) Bowl on Oct. 25, 2009, when Hester was also playing wide receiver, Harris was in just his second game with the Bengals, and Huber was a rookie when his lone punt that day went 36 yards out of bounds.
Now everybody is at the top of their games. Huber is coming off the best season ever by a Bengals punter, Harris has fired 552 straight playable snaps as a Bengal, and Hester is back to just returning. Back in the '09 game, he led the Bears with eight catches for 101 yards and Simmons can see the difference.
"He looks fresher. I'm sure he's playing with confidence because we know they have a great deal of confidence in him," Simmons says. "History over time shows (returning as well as playing from scrimmage) is difficult to do, to continue to get the same production."
Again the strategy is pretty basic.
"One guy can't cover him. All 10 guys have to be gap sound," Miles says. "It's always a great feeling going against guys you watched in high school and college. You get to gauge yourself early in the season against the best. We see where we're at. The great thing about this team is we have a lot of young guys that have the ability to do special things."
And we haven't even talked about Jones.
"He's ready. I know that," Simmons says. "He's amped up."
Jones didn't touch the ball in preseason and wide receivers Brandon Tate and Dane Sanzenbacher popped punts for TDs. That's another strange thing about special teams.
"Games are a lot faster than practice," Huber says and whenever Simmons thinks about Jones returning he always shakes his head and goes back to seamless in Seattle in 2011.
"He hadn't played in a year and it was the week he came off PUP," Simmons says of Jones's herniated neck disk. "The first time he gets it, he goes 63 yards and would have scored a touchdown if he didn't pull a hamstring."
Unfortunately, Simmons won't be able to sit back and enjoy this historic showdown of the two best punt returners in the game.
"Can't do that," he says.
COLLINS UP: To the surprise of absolutely no one, left tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee) was officially ruled out of Sunday's game against the Bears (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and he won't make the trip.
But on Friday there was optimism he would be back sooner rather than later, yet it was unclear if that meant as soon as Wednesday in preparation for next Monday night's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Steelers. Now that Whitworth's streak of 67 straight starts (including postseason) is over, defensive tackle Domata Peko is the new leader with 51 straight starts while right end Michael Johnson and punter Kevin Huber have the lead with 67 straight games among regulars. The man with the current longest streak is backup right tackle Dennis Roland with 69 straight games played.
Anthony Collins makes his 19th NFL start in Whitworth's place and his first at left tackle since his rookie year of 2008. It comes against Hall-of-Famer Julius Peppers and his 111.5 career sacks. but then, that first left tackle start was also memorable, a solid outing against a guy named James Harrison in Pittsburgh.
The best guy to talk about Collins is the voluble Collins.
"Tough, grimy, with heart. Period," he said last week. "It's definitely not my first rodeo. And we're made different from where I'm from: Beaumont, Texas, Port Arthur, Texas. We're made different. Trust me, I'll be coming out ready to play."
Collins has bounced between both tackles, and the Bengala have won wherever he's been. They went 3-3 in those six rookie starts and in the 12 since at right they're 8-4. He thinks it is going to help he's worked so much at left in training camp.
"Just getting my technique down," he said. "Now I'm just at one position now. Left side. Probably later on down in the season they might need me at right, but when you stick to one side, your whole body structure changes and it gets used to one side. So it helps a lot when you stick to one side."