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When Special Teams Isn't Special: Return Game Is Down, Coverage Teams Lacking, Punt Team Awesome, No Shayne Graham

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Most likely you could write a book about the team's differences from 2009 to 2010. Some will claim that the team is much of the same. The biggest difference, they claim, is that this year's schedule is much tougher and Cincinnati simply isn't benefit from the same breaks they had last year. All of that might be true, and everyone's list will be a collection of valid arguments to even the smallest nit-picking diatribes. One difference from last year is special teams as it compares to kicking game and the return game.

Bernard Scott returned the football on 16 kickoffs last year, recording a 31.5 yard/average, which led the entire NFL among players with more than one return. Scott has already returned 19 kickoffs this year with a staggering 11.6 yard/return drop to this year's 19.9 yards/return average. Among players that's recorded more than one kickoff return, Scott ranks 49th in the NFL. On the other hand, opponents are averaging 27.4 yards/return against the Bengals this season, including a 97-yard touchdown return during the season opener against the New England Patriots.

Against Miami, the first two kickoffs that Bernard Scott fielded resulted in terrible field position; Roddrick Muckelroy was called for holding, forcing Cincinnati to start at their own 14-yard line on the first return. Whether by penalties, juggling a catch from a kickoff, of the six kickoff returns that the Bengals received, only one return presented the offense with a starting field position outside of their own 30-yard line. The most depressing part? Cincinnati's starting position at their own 33-yard line in the second quarter against the Dolphins is the first time they've started a drive outside the 30-yard line after a kickoff since their loss to Cleveland, never returning a kickoff beyond the 30-yard line against the Falcons and Buccaneers.

Alternatively, in the kickoff coverage side of the track, the Bengals have allowed six of the previous 10 kickoff returns against Miami and Atlanta, to have a starting field position for their offense outside of their own 30-yard line; four of the five Browns' kickoff returns started outside of their own 30-yard line. And in the previous two weeks, the Bengals coverage team has allowed at least one return that went beyond midfield into Bengals territory.

The issues aren't simply limited to kickoff returns. Of the players that returned 10 punts or more in 2009, Quan Cosby ranked fifth in the league, averaging 11.9 yard/return. His ability to return punts was a big reason Cosby found a spot on the roster while a fan favorite like Dezmon Briscoe was waived. Yet, in 2010, Cosby's 7.1 yard/return average (a 4.8 yard/return average drop) ranks 25th amongst players that's returned a punt 10 times or more.

If it appears that there's nothing but doom and gloom, it's not entirely doom. Maybe some gloom, considering we're going to talk about the punting team, which is another way of saying that damned offense failed to get another first down! For one thing in the bag of totally awesome, we no longer have Shayne Graham or Brad St. Louis. Kevin Huber's game is improving all around. His longest punt this season, 72 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, set a career high. In six of the team's seven games this year, Huber has nailed at least one punt of 50 yards or more and he's averaging nearly three punts inside the 20-yard line.

More in the category of not-so-much-doom, Mike Nugent hasn't missed an extra point yet (remember Shayne Graham reference) and only missed two field goals this season (44 yards against the Browns, 53 yards against Atlanta). Nugent has already tied a career mark converting two field goals of 50 yards or more in the same season and his 63.6 yard average per kickoff is a career high (Graham averaged 63.3 yards per kickoff last season).

The Bengals on kickoff, kickoff return and punt return are unquestionably down compared to last year. Punting is better, but really, that's just like saying that a certain relief pitcher is pretty good when the team is losing by 10 points runs.

But the problem on special teams is obvious. It's Bob Bratkowski, of course.