Updated: 7 p.m.
You figure Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons would sleep a little easier this Opening Day eve in Cleveland than he did last year in Foxboro.
After all, Brandon Tate is returning kicks for him this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) instead of against him like he did for the Patriots in the last opener, and Simmons has two of his top four tacklers back from last year as well as a lot of returning players.
Last opener, Tate took one back all the way against a kick cover team that had nine players in new spots, plus the Bengals lacked their top two special teams tacklers from the year before.
But, alas, in this opener the Browns have one Joshua Cribbs, already with eight career kick return touchdowns at age 28.
"That still doesn't give me any sleep at night knowing we've got to cover the guy with the most kick return touchdowns in the history of the league," Simmons said after Thursday's practice.
But with Tate, the Bengals have the most explosive returner in Simmons' nine seasons with the club. Tate took two kicks back for scores last season, the same two the Bengals have popped since 2003. While the Bengals haven't returned a punt for a touchdown since wide receiver Peter Warrick's burst against the Chiefs in 2003, Cribbs has returned two.
Now Simmons is also hoping Tate gives the Bengals Cribbs-like danger doing both. Even though Tate has returned just one punt in his two NFL seasons, Simmons says he's fully comfortable with him going back there to return even though he's replacing a guy in wide receiver Quan Cosby that never fumbled a chance on 70 returns in his two seasons on the job.
He points to Tate's 79 punt returns at North Carolina for a 10.6-yard average and three TDs.
Tate, claimed on waivers from New England's last cut, didn't arrive until Monday. But for Simmons it was in plenty of time. He knows with a rookie quarterback and a total of 132 NFL catches at wide receiver and 15 NFL games at tight end that special teams is more than an afterthought.
"We have to play good. No question about it. We've got to be the difference," Simmons said. "When we get the opportunity, we have to make explosive plays and we have to flip field position if we ever get caught there. Everyone understands that. They know that because of where we are as team. Everybody has to pick it up."
It was a start when the Bengals got Tate.
"This kid has a burning desire deep down to get better and get back to where he was at the beginning of last year," Simmons said. "He's working very hard this week. I've been pleased … he has been here early every day. We've been meeting around the clock. I've probably been wearing him out in meetings. He's got a very good attitude. He's very eager to learn."
Tate can also flat out fly. Simmons found it very difficult to bid farewell to Cosby with, "He'll always be one of my guys." The former Angels farmhand became one of the most consistent singles and doubles hitters the Bengals have ever had. He could also move runners over as evidenced by his multiple blocks on running back Bernard Scott's 96-yard kick return in '09 against the Steelers.
"When you go get (Tate), you get a guy that's a potential home-run hitter," Simmons said. "He has a great amount of skill. The one thing he can do really well is cut. He's a great cutter. He's got great quickness, great body control. There's a lot to like about him. Hopefully we'll see that coming up on Sunday."
But Scott is going to continue to get some chances. For a guy that never returned kicks until he arrived in '09, Scott took to it so fast because of his natural running ability, Simmons said, while Tate has the experience.
Simmons thinks he knows why Tate's returns dipped in the second half of last season. Throw in 10 starts at receiver with 24 catches (for three TDs and an 18-yard average) and he recalled what happened to Steve Smith when he coached him in Carolina. Smith went to the Pro Bowl as a returner when he barely played from scrimmage as a rookie, but as he became a full-time receiver his return game took a hit.
And Simmons points to the Bears' Devin Hester. In his first three seasons he had eight starts and 11 return TDs. In his last two seasons he's had 25 starts and three return TDs.
"That's a lot to ask for a young guy for that kind of work ethic that has to be for the starting returner with what that entails while also playing a lot at receiver," Simmons said. "That's a lot for a young guy to manage, and sometimes one part suffers."
It's believed the Bengals are going to work Tate in at receiver because it's a big reason why head coach Marvin Lewis wanted him. But he's got a ways to go behind that first rotation of A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. He's here now to match the Cribbses, Hesters and Ginns.
And make no mistake. Simmons believes with the flighty AFC North weather that moving the kickoff up five yards to the 35 is going to cut down on returns but not that many.
"You've been out here the last couple of days?" Simmons asked. "It's cold. ... The wind has always been a factor and always will be (in Cleveland) ... I'm glad we're playing them in September instead of December," but when he and Nugent looked on tape at last year's game played on Oct. 3, the lake wind was still blowing hard enough to hold up Nugent's kickoffs to the 15.
But first things first.
The Bengals have to tackle Cribbs, a guy that has a history of fleecing the Bengals. In '09 he personally kept the Browns in a game the Bengals won on the last play of overtime with a 58-yard kick return and a 50-yard punt return.
Last year the Bengals didn't allow him a punt return and in their win on Dec. 19 they didn't allow Cribbs a kick return longer than 19 yards on five chances. And a lot of these guys Simmons has now—Caldwell, safety Jeromy Miles, long snapper Clark Harris, running back Brian Leonard, linebackers Brandon Johnson and leading special teams tackler Dan Skuta—played in that game.
But Simmons knows because the way the preseason is played, "you always hold your breath in that first game" when kicks have to be covered because the constant shuffling of personnel makes it an unknown.
"There's been a little more carryover from last year (than the year before)," said Simmons. "They did it some in preseason, but not a lot."
And after Cribbs this week, there is Eddie Royal in Denver, and then Ted Ginn Jr., comes in with the Niners the week after that.
"They keep coming," Simmons said.
But he admits now the Browns have something to think about with Tate.
"Keeping up with the Jonses," he said.
D-LINE KEY:Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmur is saying that rookie left guard Jason Pinkston is going to probably start, so there you have the marquee matchups in what is supposed to be a slugfest in Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) between the Bengals and the Browns up north.
Pinkston goes against the Bengals rotating tackles of Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Pat Sims while Bengals rookie right guard Clint Boling draws Browns first-round pick Phil Taylor.
Peko and Co., helped hold foes to 3.3 yards per rushing during the preseason and in the last three games the first defense held running backs to 50 yards on 27 carries.
WILL linebacker Thomas Howard, one of the three Bengals free agent pickups that have added 261 NFL starts to the defense, is amped up about a front four that rotates with Atkins (23 years old), Sims (25) and Peko (26) at tackle and at end Robert Geathers (28), Jon Fanene (29), Frostee Rucker (27), Michael Johnson (24) and Carlos Dunlap (22).
"Our defensive line is really where it all starts," said Howard, who just turned 28 himself and already has 55 starts. "They're a phenomenal bunch. They're like a young veteran bunch. There's no one over 30. Everyone has NFL experience. I'm excited to play behind these guys. They'll be the backbone of this defense hands down. That's where it all starts in my opinion.
"They take the job seriously. They come to work every day and they work hard to get after it."
LAPHAM ON BOLING: Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst, once played all five offensive line spots for the Bengals in the same game. So he has some kinship with rookie right guard Clint Boing making his first NFL start on Sunday after starting at right tackle and both guards in 49 games at Georgia.
Lapham has been a big fan since the Bengals took Boling in the fourth round and doesn't have too much advice for him.
"He just needs to do what he's done. I think he's very well prepared for it," Lapham said. "Obviously if something does go wrong, if there is some mind of adversity, put it behind you and move on.
"I think he knows exactly what he's looking at. He's as smart as a whip. I think he knows exactly what his challenge is and how it's going to unfold. Every play in every game doesn't always go as planned and it's how you adjust to that. You always have to make adjustments and he's going to be making his share."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
»For the second straight practice Thursday, cornerback Kelly Jennings (hamstring) and safety Taylor Mays (knee) worked on the side...Running back Brian Leonard (finger) was limited.
»Yes, wide receiver Jordan Shipley, who played with Browns quarterback Colt McCoy at Texas, agrees.
"There are definitely some similarities," says Shipley of the comparison between McCoy and Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. "They have the same quick release. They throw a real accurate ball. They're really smart."
»For the second straight day Thursday, the Bengals worked under the lights in Paul Brown Stadium on an overcast day, but unlike Wednesday there was no rain.