If the Bengals want to improve off of an 11-win season that saw them win the AFC North, it might be time to start demanding more from the return unit on special teams.
While he rarely produces explosive returns that gives the offense a short field to work with, the one thing Brandon Tate has done masterfully is not turn the ball over. That's what special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons values in his returners.
"When I talk to other coaches…they like Brandon. It’s none of the stuff I read around here about him. And he’s a team player," Simmons says. "When you look at returners, everybody likes to look at their averages, but you also have to look at decision-making and ball protection. The goal of the play is, and coach (Marvin) Lewis will echo this, we want to have the ball. He’s turned it over twice (out of 217 combined returns) and that’s pretty impressive."
In today's NFL, which is slowly phasing out kickoff and punt returns and the high-impact collisions that come with them, just catching the ball and not turning it over is becoming an accepted requirement to be the full-time returner.
That's exactly what Tate is. He's not adding anything special to the return game, but he's not hurting the Bengals either by turning the ball over and giving opponents short fields to work with.
Part of that has also had to do with a defense that routinely finishes in the top 10. Cincinnati is able to grind out games by simply controlling the ball and not turning it over while not giving up easy points on special teams.
That said, the Bengals want to take the next step as a team and do more than make the playoffs this year. Going back to two of their past three playoff losses, one big play could have been the difference in ending a playoff win drought of two decades.
In 2012, Cincinnati couldn't get that one big play on offense or special teams in a narrow 19-13 loss. Last year, the Bengals trailed by just 10 points for much of the third and fourth quarters. While the offense was stalling, one big return on special teams could have gotten Cincinnati right back in the game.
"Do we want more big plays? Absolutely, we want more explosive plays," Simmons says. "I want other coaches to fear us when the play us. I’ve been on the other part of that when they didn’t fear us. When they were laughing. I want the other teams to fear who we put back there."
Perhaps, the coaches are finally realizing they need more from their return unit, and that could be bad news for Tate.
Tate's job appears in jeopardy more than ever before entering camp. With Darqueze Dennard in the fold it leaves depth at corner to free up Adam Jones more in the punt return game.
Only twice last year did Tate even crack double-digit snaps on offense and assuming the Bengals find a kick returner (Danieal Manning spent some time there during practice) it could clear a path for Hamilton and/or Wright.
It seems like for three straight offseasons now, we've talked about Tate's job being in jeopardy, only to watch him fight his way onto the roster and retain his title.
Is this the offseason that finally changes?