Bad day for special teams compounded Bengals' struggles vs. Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Alex Erickson (12) plays during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Alex Erickson (12) plays during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Three special teams mishaps right out of the gate should have been the first indicator the Cincinnati Bengals were in for a long day Sunday at Pittsburgh.

Alex Erickson fumbled trying to extend a punt return, setting the Steelers up for a field goal four plays later. Brandon Wilson struggled to pick up the ball on the ensuing kickoff after it hit his leg and barely recovered for a touchback. Then, there was even a delay of game penalty on the next punt.

Factor all that in with some difficult conditions because of wind, and it wasn’t the kind of performance the Bengals were looking for on special teams in a 36-10 loss at Heinz Field.

“That’s not the type of start that we envisioned,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said Monday. “That was one of our big must-wins was trying to start fast and sustain and try to win field position. Obviously, that didn’t happen there.”

Erickson has been considered one of the more consistent punt returners in the league in recent years but his numbers have fallen off since 2018 when he produced a career-high 10.6 yards per punt return, ranking ninth best in the league among those with 20 returns or more.

He averages 8.8 yards per return this season and he’s lost three of four fumbled returns dating back to the beginning of last year. On Sunday, he also seemed to “get spooked,” as Simmons described it, on another punt that he might have misjudged in the wind and let drop.

“Yeah, obviously we can never put ourselves in position to lose the ball,” Simmons said. “Alex is trying to get some extra yardage. He broke a couple tackles. It’s like a quarterback that’s sitting in the pocket, though. At some point he has to have a time clock to know when to get down. He can’t always see what’s behind him. I think that’s what happened. They had a guy that ran past the play or got blocked past the play and ended up going down. And then he popped right back up and came from behind and punched the ball out.”

Erickson, 28, is in his fifth year as a returner and last year of his contract after a two-year extension in September 2018.

Simmons said he’s always evaluating personnel and “looking for more” out of players. However, he doesn’t know who else would return punts if not Erickson this season. Darius Philips and Tyler Boyd would be the other options, but Phillips is on injured reserve with a groin injury and Boyd is too big of a piece for the offense to risk injury on special teams.

“I think we have to trust and rely and just work to get Alex better at the things that he does,” Simmons said. “I don’t know if it’s so much that you work to get him better. He’s a veteran, experienced player. He knows to put that ball away. He’s got to put that ball away. We just have to schematically come up with things to enhance what he does and what he does well and stay away from the things he doesn’t do well and just try to make calls and put him in position to do what he does well, which is get the ball up the field vertically right now.”

“He’s got to trust in his ability to catch. He’s been reliable in the past for the most part, and he’s got to rely on his judgment in situations like that and throughout the rest of the game. He’s just got to do that stuff better. He’s got to trust in himself more. I think the same has held true with Brandon.”

Simmons said Wilson seemed to panic, thinking he needed to bring the ball out of the end zone after he muffed it in the field of play on his first kick return attempt. All he needed to do was recover the ball and sit on it.

Despite that, Wilson finished with 63 yards on three returns, averaging five yards per return more than Pittsburgh’s Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a more productive day on punt returns to far outshine Erickson’s 13 yards on two returns.

McCloud finished with 15.0 yards punt per return, including a big one in the fourth quarter when he burst through for 42 yards to put the Steelers in the red zone and set up the game-sealing touchdown for a 36-7 lead with 13:27 left.

“We had one guy that got out-leveraged,” Simmons said. “Stanley (Morgan) was right there at the point of attack to try to make the play and fell down. And we had three other guys right there that should have boxed the play in. One guy jumps to the wrong leverage. It’s a standard thing for us that you always keep the ball inside and in front of you. You never let the ball get outside you. That’s just basic, basic leverage rules. And we had one guy that did. He was at the point of attack and he was in good position and at the last minute he jumped back inside when he shouldn’t have.”

“It’s just a fundamental, easy correction to make. It’s always an easy thing to screw up obviously, and it hurt us.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Washington, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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