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Bengals midseason report card: Special teams

We conclude our midseason grades for the Bengals with an often-forgotten unit on the team.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The special teams unit on football teams can often go overlooked. Unfortunately, when they come to the forefront of fan attention, it’s usually when things aren’t going well. Darrin Simmons, who has overseen 13 previous years of quality play from the Bengals’ special teams groups, is witnessing some all-encompassing issues this year.

It’s a prevalent theme to an overall underachieving Cincinnati team in 2016. We’ve already looked at the mixed reviews on offense through eight games, as well as the largely-disappointing performances on defense so far, but now it’s time to look at the third unit of the team.

Coaching: C+

Simmons has done a good job this year in working through issues, especially in losing unit MVP in Cedric Peerman for most of this year, but there are still deficiencies. Like many of the other facets to the Bengals this year, it’s been a pretty pedestrian effort from the special teams unit.

From where I stand, the struggles we’ve seen in the return game and in field goal kicking isn’t wholly a coaching issue. Sure, Simmons could be indicted because of his likely backing of Mike Nugent, even though he continues to let down the team, but most of special teams is about execution by the players. Scheme is more of an emphasis on offense and defense than on special teams--especially with recent rule changes affecting kickoffs.

Still, based on past production and the multitude of recent high picks who are biding their time by working on special teams, one would think the group would be a bit more electric than it has been.

Kicker: D

Somewhat-predictably, Nugent has had both great and awful stretches this year. He is currently tied for No. 15 with 14 field goals made this year, but his 74% conversion rate on field goals comes in at 26th in the NFL this year. He’s also just 4-of-9 from kicks 40-plus yards this year, prompting the continued criticisms of his inability to make the long kicks.

The Bengals brought in kickers for a tryout over the bye week, but seem prepared to ride with Nugent through the rest of the season. These workouts come on the heels of two straight weeks of struggles from the veteran kicker, although we have seen him rebound from past tough stretches before.

What’s particularly concerning is the stretch of games the Bengals have in the second half of the season that might come with harsh whether. Aside from four games at home at Paul Brown Stadium in the months of November and December, Cincinnati also travels to New York, Baltimore and Cleveland to finish the year. Nugent will need to be sharp with possible inclement weather in those seven games.

Punting: C

Truthfully, there isn’t too much to report here with Kevin Huber. The former Pro Bowl player has had a couple more shanks than usual, but he isn’t consistently costing the team field position.

Currently, Huber ranks 21st in overall punt average, but is 27th in net average. He also ranks No. 24 in punts with 11 inside the 20-yard line, which isn’t that great compared to his 37 total punts.

None necessarily paint the entire picture of Huber’s 2016 performance, as he’s been asked to make a kick after decent drives stalled out. Obviously, a shortened field in this sense would negatively affect those numbers, but Huber doesn’t appear to be Pro Bowl-bound once again this year.

Kick Coverage: B

In the form of covering punts and kickoffs, the Bengals are largely doing their job—even without the valuable Cedric Peerman. Not allowing a touchdown in either punts or kicks is obviously a pretty large barometer for success in the coverage area, and it’s one that has been a Simmons staple under Marvin Lewis’ watch.

The unit has been aided by a bunch of talented defensive backs, who are reserves on defense and have done work at gunners and other spots on special teams. Again, nothing crazy-special to report here, but rather a facet of special teams that is quietly doing its job.

Return Game: D

This has to be the most disappointing facet of special teams and one of the biggest issues for the team this year. Brandon Tate has left to the pleasure of many fans, but the combination of Adam Jones, Rex Burkhead and Alex Erickson on punts and kickoffs has been uninspiring. It’s often leaving the Bengals with terrible field position on an all-too-regular basis.

When Tate wasn’t making things happen on occasion for the Bengals over his five-year Cincinnati career, Jones would come in and seem to almost always provide a spark. However, Jones, a former All-Pro selection as a return man for the Bengals, has not looked as comfortable this year. He has a long punt return of 12 yards, as well as a critical lost fumble against the Broncos on a return, and just a long of 23 yards on kickoffs.

Erickson, the unanimous preseason MVP, finally popped a big 65-yard kickoff return last week, but he has struggled mightily in the regular season. Whether it has been with calling for fair catches inside Cincinnati’s own 10-yard line, or a lack of big plays, he hasn’t been the answer for Tate as of yet.

There was once a time when if the Bengals were struggling, they could rely on getting a big play from special teams to change the momentum. While relying on a potential big return on a near-weekly basis isn’t exactly a viable long-term strategy, it’s one that paid dividends for the Bengals over the years.

Getting more big returns from Jones and Erickson would be a welcomed sight for Cincinnati. It’s especially imperative as the team attempts to work through their issues during the bye and as they adjust to the new 2016 personnel