Heading into the 2016 NFL season, the hype for the Bengals’ return game was heavy. Adam Jones, as always, appeared ready to go for yet another season of sharing kick and punt returning duties, while rookie preseason phenom Alex Erickson was electrifying when returning kicks. In the process, he improbably beat out veteran returner Brandon Tate, who wasn’t expected to see any real competition for his job. Unfortunately, the product we have seen so far this season has not lived up to that offseason and preseason hype. Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons knows that.
“We’ve got to get Adam’s stinger back a little bit,” Simmons said this week via the Dayton Daily News. “He kind of got it taken away from him a little bit in the Denver game (with a lost fumble). But as all great players do, he’ll respond.”
So far, Jones ranks 32nd in the NFL in total kick return yards (56), 34th in punt return yards (25), and has yet to score a touchdown in either situation. In addition, he fumbled against the Broncos, (though, that’s debatable) setting Denver up in prime positioning for their first go-ahead score of the game. But, despite the struggles, coach Simmons thinks that he is making some progress.
“There’s so much more to me than just yardage,” Simmons said. “The first couple games he had a couple iffy decisions back there. He caught a couple balls back deep he probably should’ve let go. The last two games he’s shown a lot better.”
Simmons has a good point, but it’s hard to look past the fact that Jones just doesn’t look like himself lately. This year, Jones’ performance is a far cry from the player who was named a special teams First-Team All Pro and Pro Football Focus All-Pro in 2014 based primarily on his ability to return kicks. That year, he finished with 1,109 combined return yards. 33 of his kick returns that year went for at least 20 yards, so his presence in the returning game consistently set the Bengals up in excellent field position, despite the fact that he was never able to find the endzone on a return. At this rate, he will be lucky to finish with one-third of that production.
Erickson’s case is another monster entirely. On his lone kick return, he gained 15 yards. However, he has served as the Bengals’ primary punt returner so far, having returned six of the team’s 10 opportunities. Unfortunately, he has only gained 42 total yards in the process, an average of seven yards per punt return. In terms of average yards per punt return, he ranks 33rd in the NFL.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Simmons said. “I think we’re coming. I think we’re maturing. The first couple games were pretty rough on me, just because we pride ourselves on trying to win this full field position deal, and we weren’t capitalizing on plays through inexperience.”
That said, it’s hard to tell how much of this lack of production is the fault of Jones and Erickson, rather than simply the Bengals’ current special teams situation. The special teams unit has lost so many key players through either free agency or former special teams players getting promotions to be starters on offense and defense.
The starting promotions are particularly killer, as they make formerly great special team players like Shawn Williams too valuable to risk by giving them extra special teams snaps. Luckily, the starting promotions are likely to take less of a toll soon as the return of Vontaze Burfict has freed up interim starter Vincent Rey, who has built his career on special teams prowess.
“I can’t over-emphasize how important that is to the group,” Simmons said of Vinny Rey’s special teams impact. “It’s just a calming effect with the rest of the group having Vinny in there. I know I have one guy who I can put in the middle of things who knows exactly what’s going on, because he’s seen it and done it all. He’s got more plays on the punt team than the rest of the punt team together, with the exception of (long snapper Clark Harris). That’s why I say these guys have to get old in a hurry.”
Unfortunately, age and experience are just not things that can be sped up for players. Right now, the Bengals’ special teams unit just has to grit their teeth and make it through this tough transition period, much like the offense is doing with the wide receivers or the defense with the linebackers.
“There’s just a lot of moving parts right now, and it’s tough to get things settled in,” Simmons said. “But having said that, these young guys just have to keep maturing and keep growing. They’re seeing a lot of these things in live game action for the first time ever. We’ve got to keep seeing it, we’ve got to keep going through it. They’ve got to keep understanding it. As a group. Not just individually, but as a group.”
Ultimately, the bottom line is the Bengals need to improve on special teams. Yes, the offense is struggling to convert in the red zone. Part of that, which has been discussed to death, is not having the team’s main red zone threat, Tyler Eifert and having lost two wide receivers during the offseason.
But, it certainly doesn’t help that, according to Football Outsiders, the kick return game is setting the Bengals up for the fifth worst average field position in the NFL (25.07 line of scrimmage per drive). Whether that’s a problem with the blocking or the returners themselves, something has to change or the Bengals’ offense will continue to wear themselves out every game.