Bengals weighing changes to special teams

Cincinnati Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons couldn’t commit to whether Darius Phillips will remain the team’s punt returner moving forward after fumbling twice in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco.

Phillips muffed two punts in the first half to give the 49ers a short field and set them up for 10 of their points in the 26-23 overtime loss for the Bengals. Cincinnati rallied from a 20-6 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game, but was outdone in the extra period.

Between Phillips and Stanley Morgan in the first half, the ball hit the ground four times on returns. Two of them were lost, and the Bengals switched to Tyler Boyd in the second half. He cleanly fielded two punts.

“Well, I think it’s something we’ll talk about here pretty quickly and try to get figured out,” Simmons said Monday of the punt returner role. “I felt at the time he was having a rough go of it last night and that’s why we made the change in the middle of the game that we did. Sometimes when you’re snakebit you can’t afford to have it happen again. So obviously we put Tyler back there, somebody we’ve got a great deal of confidence in to handle the ball really in any situation. It’s not something I anticipated going into the game dealing with. We haven’t completely had all those discussions yet. It’s something that will work itself pretty quick and get it figured out.”

That wasn’t the only concern coming out of Sunday’s game. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who leads the team with 12.5 sacks, left the game late in the second quarter with a back injury and did not return. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he is hopeful Hendrickson will just be limited early in the week, and when asked if it was just back spasms, as had been reported by national media, Taylor said, “that was part of it.”

The Bengals are still waiting on more information regarding right tackle Riley Reiff, who left late in the third quarter after appearing to re-injure the ankle that caused him to miss the Week 13 game against the Chargers. Chidobe Awuzie also didn’t finish the game and said Monday he re-aggravated the foot injury he suffered against the Chargers but expects to play this week at Denver.

Injuries have impacted special teams lately as well, especially with linebackers not being available and with kick returner Brandon Wilson being on injured reserve, but Simmons said the return game has been a concern since the departure of Alex Erickson this offseason.

Phillips was the backup to Erickson last year.

“When we moved on from Alex a year ago, I’ve been concerned about that spot,” Simmons said. “I can only control the guys we have on the team. That’s the part I can control. I’ve tried to work to make those guys as good as I possibly can. But yeah, there’s been a concern there of mine. I have a concern about a lot of positions. When you have concerns about those, you try to work through those things and work to develop them. Darius has been somebody who has caught punts for us in the past. It’s been a little up and down at times from a consistency standpoint, but we had Alex. Alex is somebody I had a great deal of confidence in to handle the ball and make the correct decisions. That’s why Darius didn’t get much of a chance in some of those spots, although he was our return person in some games that Alex missed or was inactive for a game or two or hurt or whatever it was, and we got through those games fine. We certainly didn’t last night.”

Taylor indicated he and Simmons will talk about personnel decisions more in-depth Tuesday. Trenton Irwin would have been another option Sunday, but he wasn’t active.

Phillips was a healthy scratch vs. the Chargers following two full days of practice. Pooka Williams was elevated from the practice squad and handled kick returns that game, and Irwin was the punt returner. Neither played this week, but the Bengals will need to find more consistency in those roles.

Simmons said Phillips’ issues Sunday were more mental than physical, and this isn’t the first time he has put the ball on the ground. Phillips fumbled in two other games but the Bengals recovered.

“I think it really is just a concentration standpoint more than anything, just being able to focus on the ball,” Simmons said. “The first punt he mishandled I think it wasn’t a very good punt, and I think the rotation on it was off and was something different than what we’ve seen in a long time. It’s just a concentration about focusing on the things he needs to focus on from a concentration standpoint what he needs to be looking at. … Really that’s what happened on the second one, too. We rushed on that play so I knew the gunners had the potential to be down the field and they were. They were in front of him, although I’ve seen him make that play a bunch of times handling the ball with people around him. Obviously, he didn’t do it, and it certainly cost us severely.”


Bengals at Broncos, 4:05 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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