Teams get special treatment

5-5-03, 5:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

There has been the blizzard of community outreach. There has been the frenzied college-like recruiting of free agents. There has been the shift in the draft room with more emphasis given an expanded personnel department.

But if you want to see the biggest Marvin Lewis on-field impact, you only have to look as far as the detailed-as-footnotes special teams. And you could find them at this past weekend's minicamp because players and coaches will tell you special teams are getting more time together than ever before on and off the field.

"We've got a coach that understands special teams is a big part of the game. That it can change a game," said wide receiver Ron Dugans, the Bengals' best special teams player. "There's a bigger emphasis. Last year, it was offense, defense, special teams, This year, it's almost like special teams, offense, defense."

Special teams has housed more disasters than CNN lately for the Bengals. In the NFL's yearly special teams rankings computed by Rick Gosselin of "The Dallas Morning News," the Bengals haven't finished above 26th since 1996 and finished last in 2002.

None of the coaches and players are taking shots at former special teams coach Al Roberts. They are just saying that Lewis is giving his successor, Darrin Simmons, a lot more sway around the building in the form of more on-field time and more meeting time.

Take those 30-minute meetings for gunners.

Dugans is a gunner. They are the outside contain men, and the first guys down field to cover a punt. While Simmons works with the protection of the interior line, assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi and receivers coach Alex Wood meet only with the gunners.

And this is before they go on the field.

"We've got the gunners working on the type of releases he wants against double and single coverage," Cioffi said. "We meet for a half an hour a day at least, just the gunners. Alex and I go over the different techniques. There's different drills, overheads, power point, the whole nine yards. We've already done five different drills in the these two mincamps, and I'm sure training camp will be more of the same. He knows exactly what he wants and how he wants us to teach it."

If it sounds like Simmons is a bit obsessed with detail, it's only because he is. Just like Simmons knows what he wants out of his people (he immediately changed the stance of the punt coverage team at the first minicamp), Lewis knew what he wanted in a special teams coach. Lewis saw teams guru Scott O'Brien obsess at the University of Pittsburgh and the Ravens, and if he couldn't get O'Brien he would get the next best thing in Simmons, O'Brien's assistant with the Panthers.

"A Scott O'Brien clone," Lewis said. "I know he'll coach them up as well as they can be coached up."

Dugans and his mates have seen plenty of Carolina tape as Simmons tries to hammer home the idea of "mental reps."

"If you visualize it first, it's easier to go out there and do it," Dugans said. "It's more hands on when you've got two coaches working with the gunners. We really only had one coach working with us last year. The more individual stuff gives you more time. He'll put on tape and say, 'This is what I want when we go out on the field."

Fullback Chris Edmonds thought teams were lucky to get on the field during practice last year for five to 10 minutes, and the meetings weren't much longer. Simmons won't divulge his allotted time, but the players say it's significantly more over last year.

And more detailed.

"He's got everything down to a science," Edmonds said. "Everything has a call. Everything has a name. There's a function for everything so everybody's on the same page."

Edmonds had a special teams gaffe last season against Baltimore when he let his man through for a blocked punt on a game-turning touchdown that turned a 23-16 Bengals' lead suddenly into 23-21 on the way to a 27-23 loss.

Edmonds still blames the play on himself and nobody else. But he doesn't think that block would happen now.

"I was trying to do too much," Edmonds said. "There was a new guy behind me and I was trying to bump my guy into his guy and I let my guy go. Now, his whole thing is not putting you in position to do too much. There are so many rules for blocking so you can protect yourself and the punter. He's got so many things in that you have to keep up with it every day."

Simmons tries to think of everything. On Saturday, he worked on the side with kicker Neil Rackers, holders Nick Harris, and Travis Dorsch, and snapper Brad St. Louis on field goals at the end of a half and game. He put them over on the sideline and acted out a failed third-down play with less than 20 seconds left, so they could get used to running on to the field at the referee's fourth-down signal.

Simmons wouldn't reveal his time allotment, but did allow, "We're getting done what we need to get done."

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