Lost among all the warts marring the way the Cincinnati Bengals have started the season – offensive line struggles, lack of turnovers on defense, injured playmakers and the 2-4 record – has been the fact that one player is having the best year of his career.
Punter Kevin Huber ranks eighth in the league with a 47.4-yard average, and he’s seventh with a 42.3-yard net.
Both of those numbers are better than the franchise records of 46.8 and 42.1 Huber set in 2014 when he went to the Pro Bowl.
“It’s a good start, but he’s got to keep it going,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “We’ve got 10 more games.”
Sunday in the 29-14 loss at Pittsburgh , Huber had a net of 46.8 and continued his streak of consecutive punts without a touchback to 31.
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“I thought four of the five punts were fantastic,” Simmons said. “Any time you can net 48.6 on five punts, that’s a big deal, especially against (Antonio Brown) in Pittsburgh, where we’ve had our struggles in the past.
“Our gunners covered well,” Simmons added, referring to Cody Core and Josh Shaw. “We did some things to bait them into singling our gunners up, so Cody and Josh did a nice job of forcing fair catches. Any time we can control field position that way, it’s a big deal.”
Nearly half of Huber’s punts, 15 of 31, have been downed inside the 20-yard line, which is tied for third in the league, two shy of the lead shared by San Francisco’s Bradley Pinion and Indianapolis’ Rigoberto Sanchez.
That puts him on pace for 40 punts inside the 20, which would top the single-season franchise record of 33 Huber set in 2012.
Sunday was a solid day overall for Simmons’ special teams, until a simple alignment mistake led to the longest play of the game for either team when Pittsburgh pulled off a fake punt for a 44-yard pass play.
Simmons explained that cornerback Darqueze Dennard was supposed to play off Pittsburgh gunner Darius Heyward-Bey in an attempt to bait the Steelers into a different protection the Bengals thought they could exploit to have a shot at blocking the punt. But Dennard was too far inside, and Steelers personal protector Robert Golden threw a perfect pass down the right sideline with 6:53 to go and Pittsburgh leading by 12.
“(Dennard) was supposed to be out further so (Golden) wouldn’t check to that,” Simmons said. “We were trying to put hesitation in (Robert Golden) mind, is he going to cover, is he not going to cover, what’s he going to do? We were too far inside and he was like screw it, I’m going to do it. And he did it and executed it. Hell, it was probably the best damn pass that was thrown all night.”
The Bengals used a similar ploy successfully in 2014, with Dane Sanzenbacher intercepting a pass from punter Brad Wing.
“(Dennard) should’ve been a little wider,” Simmons said. “He should have been more in position to cover that guy if they throw it. We knew that was one of the outcomes that could happen, that they’d try to throw it. He’s got to put himself in position to try to pick it off.
“I didn’t see it,” Simmons added. “My head was between my legs because I knew what was coming. I didn’t look. The second I saw it taking too long I knew he was trying to check. I’m yelling at (Dennard) to get out there, and about that time he snapped the ball.”