We’ve learned to never expect rookies to do much, if anything in their first year with the Bengals.
You would have thought that would include Alex Erickson, who is typically the fifth wide receiver active on gamedays. He did just enough in the preseason to edge out Brandon Tate for one of the final receiver spots.
Part of that was because of Erickson’s receiving ability, though we’ve rarely seen that in play this year with just one catch for 20 yards in Week 2. However, Erickson’s biggest impact has come as a punt and kickoff returner, which has really taken off in recent weeks.
“You press a little bit but then you’re not playing like yourself,” Erickson said about his slow start in replacing Tate, via Dayton Daily News. “You’re not doing the things you’re capable of doing when you’re pressing like that. You’re just trying to relax and it’s going to come. It’s going to develop and just improve every day, building that chemistry with the guys and trusting each other and going out and making plays like we know we can do.”
It began with his 65-yard kickoff return set up a touchdown vs Washington in Week 8, a game that resulted in a tie. One has to wonder how the game ends if not for Erickson’s big return, which came in the first quarter after Washington jumped out to a 7-0 lead.
Erickson followed that up with an 84-yard return coming out of halftime on Monday Night Football, which set up an easy touchdown vs the Giants that gave Cincinnati a 17-14 lead.
But he wasn’t done there. On the ensuing drive, Erickson returned a punt 18 yards that help set up another scoring opportunity. If not for Tyler Boyd’ controversial catch/no-catch touchdown, that could have been a 24-14 lead Cincinnati took in large part because of Erickson, and it was a big reason why the Bengals dominated the third quarter.
It should have been part of a Bengals win, something we rarely, if ever could say of Tate during his time in Cincinnati. To be fair, Tate had a nice start to his Bengals career. He returned 51 punts for 543 yards (10.6 avg.) with a long of 56 for a score.
Tate also averaged 24.8 yards per kickoff return over his first three seasons with a long of 71, but the NFL’s new safety rules to limit returns helped lead to his production dropping off recently. He averaged just 22.5 yards per kickoff return from 2014-15 with his longest returns being 31 and 58.
Tate also failed to produce on punts after his big first season. From 2012-15, Tate averaged just 8.5 yards per punt return with longs of 32, 43, 49, 18, and 31.
So far this season, Erickson hasn’t done much to be an upgrade on punts with just a 7.1 average through nine games and none of 20-plus yards. Tate, meanwhile, is averaging 10.2 yards per return and has three 20-plus yard returns in eight games with the Bills.
However, Tate is averaging just 23 yards per kickoff return this year in comparison to Erickson’s 31.3 average. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is impressed with what he’s seen with the rookie, but he’s also pleased with how improved the Bengals’ special teams as a whole is.
“I think the way we’re practicing is better so we’re blocking better in games and he’s starting to find his way,” Simmons said. “He’s starting to feel it a little bit better. It’s a combination of him understanding and just getting a better feel so he’s not having to think so much, he’s just reacting. He can feel those things open up, he can see the holes open up and react to them instead of pressing too hard to make something happen.”
Simmons is one of the game’s best when it comes to special teams, and that’s helped Erickson make big strides as a rookie.
“(His message) is ‘being a rookie is not an excuse. There are guys counting on you to make plays, and when you get the opportunities to do so you have to be able to execute,’ ” Erickson said. “It’s one of those things, just try to learn as much as you can in film study and through every rep in practice and the game so you shorten that learning curve and you make the right decisions and do the right things back there.”
One of the more intriguing storylines this Sunday when the Bills come to town will be the return of Tate, who Cincinnati cut in favor of Erickson this offseason. Tate has quietly had a decent season as Buffalo’s primary returner, though not enough to overshadow what Erickson has done as a rookie, nor the bright future he has ahead of him.