While the struggles in the running game and red zone have been fingered as the primary culprits for the lack of points the Cincinnati Bengals have scored this season, a hidden factor has been the inability of the special teams to generate much in the way of kickoff and punt returns.
Bengals don't have a kick return longer than 21 yards or a punt return longer than 15, and they rank 26th and 28th respectively in average yards per return.
“It’s been very frustrating,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “I think we’re coming. I think we’re maturing. The first couple games were pretty rough on me, just because we pride ourselves on trying to win this full field position deal, and we weren’t capitalizing on plays through inexperience.”
In addition to beginning the year without their two best special teams players – Pro Bowler Cedric Peerman broke his arm in the third preseason game and Vinny Rey was playing nearly 100 percent of the defensive snaps while Vontaze Burfict was suspended – the Bengals are missing several other key pieces that made Simmons’ teams so solid last year.
Shawn Williams moved into a starting role at safety, and Emmanuel Lamur and Chris Carter are no longer with the team.
“There’s just a lot of moving parts right now, and it’s tough to get things settled in,” Simmons said. “But having said that, these young guys just have to keep maturing and keep growing. They’re seeing a lot of these things in live game action for the first time ever. We’ve got to keep seeing it, we’ve got to keep going through it. They’ve got to keep understanding it. As a group. Not just individually, but as a group.”
Rookie Alex Erickson’s ability to return punts was the key reason he earned a spot on the 53-man roster. In addition to an 80-yard touchdown, Erickson had punt returns of 39, 30 and 18 yards in the preseason, as well as a 31-yard kick return.
But his longest punt return in the regular season has been 15 yards.
“There’s so much more to me than just yardage,” Simmons said. “The first couple games he had a couple iffy decisions back there. He caught a couple balls back deep he probably should’ve let go. The last two games he’s shown a lot better.”
While Erickson’s struggles can be chalked up to a rookie learning the ropes, more puzzling has been the ineffectiveness of Adam Jones, who is regarded as most of the dangerous return men in the league.
Jones is averaging just 18.7 yards on kick returns and 6.3 on punts.
“We’ve got to get Adam’s stinger back a little bit,” Simmons said. “He kind of got it taken away from him a little bit in the Denver game (with a lost fumble). But as all great players do, he’ll respond.”
It’s unclear when – or if – Peerman will return from his broken arm. He’s one of two players currently eligible to return from Injured Reserve, along with rookie cornerback William Jackson, but the Bengals can only bring one of them back.
But Simmons got another key piece back last week when Rey played 54 percent of the special teams snaps with Burfict back in the fold at linebacker. The 15 snaps he played were more than the 13 he logged in the first three games combined.
“I can’t over-emphasize how important that is to the group,” Simmons said. “It’s just a calming effect with the rest of the group having Vinny in there. I know I have one guy who can I can put in the middle of things who knows exactly what’s going on, because he’s seen it and done it all. He’s got more plays on the punt team than the rest of the punt team together, with the exception of (long snapper Clark Harris). That’s why I say these guys have to get old in a hurry.”