Special teams will be a focus of preseason finale for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Special teams will play a big role in upcoming roster decisions, so that will be an emphasis for the Cincinnati Bengals in the preseason finale Sunday against Miami.

While it’s most significant for players who are on the bubble at other positions on offense or defense, there are also some decisions to be made for specialist roles.

The punt returner job appears a competition between Darius Phillips and Trenton Irwin, rookie Evan McPherson seems to have an edge over Austin Seibert for the kicker job and the gunner spots also will be an area to nail down Sunday as well.

Long-time special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said he has plenty still to mull.

“There are a couple hot spots we still have to have sorted out,” Simmons said. “It’s a nightmare for me to have to schedule these guys who are going to play. It’s also very intriguing because you are giving guys opportunities maybe to do things they haven’t done before or they haven’t in a long time. There’s a lot riding on me and the fact I have to get these guys ready to play not in a preseason game, but in a regular season game. These preseason games from a preparation standpoint are fairly vanilla and fairly easy but that doesn’t even hold a bow to what you are going to see week one. …There’s a lot still to be decided from this game. … They want to have as many of those gold bars, as many opportunities as you can to show what you can do because that is your resume. That is your calling card. Not only for this team but for the 31 other teams, too.”

Simmons said Phillips has looked as good as he’s seen him in the return role this preseason, as the new additions in the secondary might have fueled him to make his mark in other ways. His opportunities at the cornerback spot could be more limited if everyone is healthy, though it appears Cincinnati might be down one starter for a bit with Trae Waynes suffering a hamstring injury this week.

The Bengals are looking for a replacement for former return man Alex Erickson, who moved on in free agency.

“I think as you can imagine it’s different (now for Phillips),” Simmons said. “When Alex was here he probably didn’t feel like he had a great chance. I shouldn’t say that, it kind of got derailed last year. I had the full intention of pushing him to try to put him in that role. And then Trae Waynes got hurt right away. Darius had to become a starting corner on defense. I can’t put a starting corner out there. That got sidetracked and derailed so his focus and attention kind of goes elsewhere. Everybody assumed Alex was going to be the guy, and away we go. I don’t think it got his complete focus. Darius probably understands with the signings of bringing some of those guys on, Mike Hilton, Eli Apple, Darius starts 1, 2, 3, 4, uh oh. I better really lock in here, this could be my role because everyone sees a void there in that returner role. He has taken it more serious, with more professionalism knowing this may be the deal that keeps him here.”

The Bengals also will be looking at the gunners Sunday, with players like Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan, Brandon Wilson, Winston Rose, Tony Brown and Jalen Davis all in consideration.

Thomas played the gunner role some toward the end of last year and hasn’t gotten much opportunity there this preseason while Simmons has tried to pay attention to when he’s getting time on offense. Simmons said he will get in early Sunday.

“I’ve been very pleased with our gunners so far,” Simmons said. “Brandon’s done a solid job. Stanley Morgan always does a solid job, too. We’ve had several guys force fair catches vs. single. Not when they were doubled, when they were singled up, which also is important. Forcing a fair catch or forcing a returner to signal for a fair catch because the gunner got in his face, to me, is a lot like a tackle. It’s virtually the same as a tackle to me. We had several guys that showed up and did that. Jalen Davis was one of those guys. Winston Rose got a chance a little bit the first week and made a couple of tackles on kickoff. So we’ve had a variety of guys that have shown up there. Tony Brown is somebody who played a lot for us last year, too. I feel good where we’re at at gunner right now.”

Simmons still plans to rotate the kickers, and said that McPherson still hasn’t won that job even though he’s looked the stronger option this preseason. It seems less likely the team keeps a second kicker this year, and McPherson, who was a fifth-round pick out of Florida, has made long-distance kicks look easy so far.

“For a guy who I don’t even know if he’s 21 years old yet, he hasn’t really earned the opportunity to do much of anything yet,” Simmons said. “He’s earned the opportunity to lace his shoes up and put his jersey on and tighten his chin strap. That’s about all he’s earned in my eye. We’ll go through the same rotation. We’ll rotate those guys through and give them both opportunities to show. We have a unique situation. I think both guys deserve - really we have two fifth-round picks on our team at kicker - and both deserve to be kicking in the league. You guys will find out which one it is for us on Tuesday.”


Dolphins at Bengals, 4 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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