Thursday, July 16, 2020

Bengals special teams unit a major strength heading into 2020 season

Russ Heltman
Jul 11, 2020

Last season was arguably the worst stretch of football in Bengals history. They were awful on defense and injuries derailed a talented offense.

Despite the struggles, the special teams unit was a bright spot and looks to be a building block moving forward.

Often the most overlooked aspect of the game, special teams can be the difference between a good team and a great team. The Patriots are a great example. Bill Belichick’s special teams unit has finished in the top 10 in 14 of his 20 seasons with New England. 

The Patriots have finished among the top five in eight of those seasons, including two of the last three years according to SI's Rick Gosselin.

The Bengals have a lot of work to do in the other two phases, but Darrin Simmons’ group proved they’re one of the NFL’s best last season.

The Bengals’ special teams unit was top five in virtually every metric in 2019 and arguably the best in the league.

Simmons was promoted to assistant head coach after the season. Heading into year 17, he is the longest-tenured coach on the Bengals' staff and one of the few holdovers from the Marvin Lewis era. Simmons has turned Kevin Huber and Clark Harris into the preeminent punting duo in Bengals' history.

With 11 seasons in the books, Huber seems to age like a fine wine. Almost 50 percent of his punts in 2019 finished inside the 20-yard line (49.33 percent). Only 33 percent of his punts were returned by the opposing team (lowest since 2013).

Huber didn’t play under great circumstances either. He had to deal with an offense that constantly forced him into bad field position. Harris has done his part along the way, delivering 1,428 consecutive playable snaps. Huber and Harris can always be relied on, but fans had questions surrounding the kicking unit heading into last season. The duo exceeded expectations and were a big reason why the Bengals’ special teams was so successful.

The kickoff return game turned out to be the biggest strength of the whole team. Cincinnati finished third in average return yards (26.4) and kickoff starting point (26-yard line). A lot of this success can be attributed to Brandon Wilson. After missing time due to injury, he was the best returner in the league from Weeks 5-13.

He led the league in kickoff return average (31.3 yards) and finished the year with PFF's highest return grade (85.0). The stage is set for Wilson to have an encore in 2020, assuming he can stay healthy for all 16 games.

On the flip side of the kicking unit, the much-maligned Randy Bullock had a career year in 2019. The Texas A&M alum set a career-high for field goal percentage (87.1 percent) and field goals made between 40-49 yards (10-of-12). Bullock has always been accurate, but has never been a consistent threat from 50-plus yards. He drilled a 57-yarder in Week 16 (a career-long). Maybe that’s a sign of things to come.

It would be hard to highlight this special teams group without bringing up one of the best gunners in the NFL: Stanley Morgan.

Morgan, a wide receiver, thrived in the role. He earned the sixth highest PFF grade among special teams players (90.4). The Nebraska-product can get downhill in a hurry with 4.53 speed and seemed to relish the role after being called up from the practice squad in October.

The Bengals have the continuity and experience to continue their reign amongst some of the best special teams units in the NFL.

One question surrounding this group is the captain's patch. Clayton Fejedelem donned the capital "C" in 2019 for good reason. He’s played 1,435 career snaps on special teams and his 14 special teams tackles in 2017 ranked second in the NFL. Fejedelem has been a consistent contributor according to PFF boasting an average career special teams grade of 73.7.

All of that experience packed up and moved to South Beach after he signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency. It’ll be up to Simmons to find a player that can step up and lead the special teams unit.

The Bengals have obviously struggled over the past few years, but through it all Simmons has crafted one of the most consistent special teams units in the league.

It’s time for the offense and defense to catch up with the special teams in Cincinnati.

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