The Thursday Morning Left Tackle: Special teams, hitting players low, and more

USA TODAY Sports

In our Thursday Morning Left Tackle (something I made up on the spot because I'm genius), we talk special teams, hitting a player low, and much more.

Special teams is unique.

Based on one turnover, return, or stifling coverage that pins the opposition near their own goalline, special teams can actually produce some of the more explosive moments in football, if not completely accelerate momentum shifts.

But if the special teams unit is bad, it can have the rippling effect of a stone being dropped into water.

In the last two preseason games, the Dallas Cowboys have had a field goal blocked, two muffed punts, and multiple kickoff returns of over 25 yards allowed. Last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Francisco 49ers allowed a 104-yard kickoff return to Quintin Demps, a 52-yard punt return to Devon Wylie, and a blocked PAT. Remember the special teams captain Dan Skuta signing with the 49ers?

The Denver Broncos allowed a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks after Peyton Manning engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive. Jermaine Kearse did in one return what took Manning nine plays accomplish.

The Bengals? They have one of the best special teams units on planet Earth.

According to Rick Gosselin's special teams ranking, the Bengals had the second-best special teams unit in the NFL last season. Football Outsiders' gave Cincinnati a special teams DVOA of 4.1 percent -- seventh-best in the NFL. Cincinnati's coverage teams are a big reason. Last year they allowed an average return of 7.8 yards per punt return, sixth in the NFL.

Why?

The Bengals have one of the deepest rosters in the NFL, giving Darrin Simmons a collection of players that are either veterans of special teams or talented enough to possibly start for another team. Someone like Vinnie Rey, completely forgotten with a recovering knee injury, but wildly praised by Simmons less than three weeks ago, is an example.

"Guys respect Vinnie because of how hard he works,"special teams coach Darrin Simmons said. "He may not be the most vocal guy, the guy that you follow because of what he says. But you follow him by what he does. He's got the respect of the younger players. He knows everything as well as I do. That's a calming thing."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis called Rey "kind of the captain of special teams. He basically assumes the role that Skuta had."

Running back Cedric Peerman, arguably a bubble player (not by me), knows that his path to make the 53-man roster will be through special teams.

"That's the thing that's been able to let me stick around. Hopefully I can continue to do that," said Peerman to Bengals.com. But he's used to that. "Nothing unusual."

Here comes Rex Burkhead, who Simmons praised for his intelligence. Geoff Hobson wrote that the special teams coordinator asked his players to "write out their assignments for every position" that they could play on special teams. Hobson writes that "Burkhead's exam was five pages deep."

"In every detail. That showed me how detailed he is. That showed me he has the intelligence and desire to want to be that guy," Simmons said. "I had a feeling he could do that before. He's a guy that plays with intelligence and aggressiveness. But they have to see it live and experience it if they haven't seen it before, so there'll be some bumps in the road."

Special teams.

It's something that can make or break a season, and it's the hidden advantage that Cincinnati has in the NFL.

***

When Texans rookie D.J. Swearinger hit Dustin Keller last weekend, the resulting blow tore the tight end's ACL, PCL, MCL, and also dislocated his knee cap. He's clearly done for the year and it's not exactly clear if he'll play in the NFL again. Days later, Swearinger told the Palm Beat Post that he was "making a hit playing football. In this league you've got to go low. If you go high you're going to get a fine."

"With the rules in this era you’ve got to hit low," Swearinger said via ESPN. "If I would have hit him high, I would have gotten a fine. So I think I made the smartest play. I’m sorry it happened and I pray he has a speedy recovery. ... Right now it’s just instinct. You see somebody come across the middle, you gotta go low. You’re going to cost your team 15 yards. You’ve got to play within the rules."

Some players aren't buying it.

"It's crap," Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline told WQAM's The Joe Rose Show. "I mean I think that, me personally, if you're telling me, ‘Oh, I'm so worried about going high or hurt[ing] the head,' you consciously went low then, is what you're trying to tell me."

"That was ridiculous on his part. It should be a fineable offense. That's just not part of football -- hitting a defenseless player in his knee, that's something we all dread as players. That's my nightmare,'' Tony Gonzalez told USA TODAY Sports. "Hit me in my head (instead)."

Gonzalez is right. Hartline is right. Knee injuries are the worst type of injuries for players and anyone targeting that area will absolutely earn scorn from within the NFL community. Considering that the target window for a defensive player is getting smaller in an increasingly violent game, does Swearinger make a credible point though? Concussions are the wild card in every move that the NFL makes, currently dealing with several lawsuits related to head injuries.

"But if you hit someone hard in the shoulder and you glance up -- and you can tell it's not a direct beeline to a guy's helmet -- you still get fined." said former All-Pro defensive back Eric Davis. "So guys are getting lower and lower and lower because they don't want to get fined. You don't want to get fined, so now you're going to go at legs.

"Now the legs are your aiming point, so you're going to get more of these injuries because you're going to catch more guys in awkward positions."

Is this just a situation that the league indirectly encouraged? Not suggesting that the league wants defensive players to hit receivers low; rather a byproduct of increasing rules that makes it more difficult to get the ball carrier on the ground.

***

CBS released their broadcasting team for this year, along with the games that they'll be calling though the first quarter of the season. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will call the regular season opener between the Bengals and Bears in Chicago.

ESPN will carry the Bengals during their week two division clash against Pittsburgh, which will obviously be called by Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden. Fox will have the Bengals in week three, and according to Joe Reedy with the Cincinnati Enquirer, the game will be called by Joe Buck and Troy Aikmen.

CBS returns in week four when the Bengals head to Cleveland. The game will be called by Marv Albert and Rich Gannon.

***

Sports Illustrated's The Audibles release an All-Overrated team on offense. No Bengals.

***

I asked my friends in the twitter-sphere for possible fantasy football names. They didn't disappoint. Here are some of them.

Cattitude (corny impromptu)
The Driving Cats (SNL reference)
Josh's Junglemen (that just sounds wrong)
The Burfict Storm
Jungle Junkies
Mo Sanu For You (c'mon, StripeHype. You can do better)
Mike Brown Budgets (feeling it...)
Cat's Eye (movie freaked me out when I was younger)
Dick (Butkis) in a Box (oooookay)
Kim Jong UnStoppable (Jack Bauer sneers)
Burfict Strangers
50 Shades of WhoDey (not touching this)

***

Not doing a haiku
Everyone is doing them
And I don't know how

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