The Bengals’ decision to elevate Cedric Peerman to the roster over William Jackson was upsetting to many fans, and for good reason. It marked the fifth year in a row the team has essentially redshirted a rookie first round pick, whether due to injury reasons or a lack of trust in young players’ early development. As we saw from Jackson on social media, the young corner seemed eager and ready to play, but the Bengals eventually decided to promote Peerman, a Pro Bowl special teamer in 2015, and a former team captain to the roster.
But upon further review in the film room, it’s becoming more and more obvious why Cincinnati made this choice.
The circumstances that put the Bengals in this position were less than ideal to begin with. Both Peerman and Jackson suffered injuries that forced Cincinnati to put them on the injury list, with the ability to only designate one for return. If anything, we should just be blaming bad luck (which has been a recurring theme over the past five or so years, or maybe just the entire existence of the Bengals’ franchise). After all, if both players hadn’t suffered freak injuries, the Bengals wouldn’t have had to choose between the two players.
However, even in a lost season, the Bengals’ decision to promote Peerman rather than Jackson makes sense.
For the most part, Rex Burkhead is great at what he does on special teams. I’d guess he is one of the best 20 special teams players in the NFL. In Peerman’s absence, Burkhead took on the veteran’s role, filling in quite admirably.
In fact, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hard-pressed to find an example where Burkhead didn’t do exactly what he’s supposed to do. Even in the play below, the running back navigates through a sea of defenders and manages to pick up his block, ensuring Kevin Huber’s punt gets off clean.
But at the same time, it’s plays like this that separate Burkhead, a very good special teams player, from Peerman, who is one of the league’s best (if not the very best). As I mentioned, Burkhead (standing behind the line, closest to Huber) picks up his block, loses his footing and eventually makes his way down the field. That now-Bills return man Brandon Tate opted for a fair catch helped Burkhead in this scenario, but being one of the last guys downfield on the play could be an issue on many returns.
This is what distinguishes Peerman from Burkhead. With the veteran in the lineup on special teams, Cincinnati is able to do so much more. Peerman never fails to pick up a block, and he’s one of the first guys downfield on every play, despite getting a late start due to his being the last line of defense on punts. Peerman led the Bengals in special teams tackles for the last two years, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2015.
Peerman’s ability to get downfield becomes more evident at this angle:
On this specific play, Derron Smith (top) gets double-teamed, leaving Marquis Flowers (first guy in from the left of the line, like a left guard on the offensive line) as the gunner. Peerman immediately recognizes Flowers’ positioning, determines he doesn’t need to contain on the play and gets downfield quickly, beating all of the guys in front of him to the ball and eventually drawing a blocker. Nick Vigil could’ve done a better job getting outside of Devin Hester on this play and, as a result, the veteran return man was able to gain some decent yardage. But Peerman’s impact cannot be understated; the veteran is masterful at what he does.
The Bengals are generally good on special teams, but on this play, it’s clear the Redskins out-executed them. Washington managed to get around Cincinnati with ease on the play, but Adam Jones’ quality return helped the Bengals turn a poor play into one that went for positive yards. Burkhead, like most of his teammates, got beat on the play, but he still managed to get back downfield and secure a block for Jones’ return.
As I’ve mentioned, Burkhead is a great special-teamer. I’m showing his sub-standard plays for a reason — because for the most part, nearly every play he’s been in on that doesn’t show up here has been a good one. Peerman, however, is just a different player. The special teams ace can be incredibly aggressive, and he’s not afraid to take on any opponent.
Here, Peerman (30) takes on long-snapper Morgan Cox (46), stopping him in his tracks. I’m not at all familiar with the Ravens’ special teams, but from what I’ve seen with the Bengals and other teams, long-snappers are generally one of the first guys downfield on every play. Alex Erickson opted out of returning this particular punt, but Peerman’s block — stonewalling off one of the first guys to generally get downfield — would be huge on any potential return.
That’s not to say Peerman makes plays like this on every return. His responsibilities on punt return (and every special teams play, for that matter) vary on a play-to-play basis. In the NFL, teams don’t act like they do in Madden, with just three plays in the playbook, which all generally operate the same way. The Bengals have an extensive playbook, with plays specifically designed for different returners and different types of returns. But Peerman, who is one of the NFL’s most willing and most talented special teams players, allows the Bengals to be flexible, as special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons knows the running back will execute on each and every play.
Fortunately (and not by coincidence), the Bengals have been good on kickoffs throughout Darrin Simmons’ tenure. That’s especially important in 2016, as they’ve been playing without Peerman, who was the team’s leading special teams tackler last year. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough examples in Sunday’s action to find an exciting Peerman play. But for what it’s worth, he appears to be replacing Darqueze Dennard on kickoffs, which should be a relief considering the cornerback is not an incredibly aggressive player in these scenarios. (He’s a solid gunner on punts, for what it’s worth.) Putting Peerman in on kickoffs not only upgrades the Bengals’ special teams, but it also gives Dennard the chance to come in fresh as he takes the field on defense.
One things opponents have done on a seemingly weekly basis is pooch kicks toward Burkhead on kickoff returns. This indicates teams are actually starting to respect Erickson as a return man, but more importantly it indicates they don’t seem to respect Burkhead as a returner (or at the least, they don’t think he’ll beat them on any returns). Burkhead has returned six kickoffs, averaging just 19 yards per return with a long of 26 yards.
Again, that’s not to say Burkhead isn’t a capable special teams player, but his not being Peerman presents an issue for the Bengals in that opponents will try to — and occasionally succeed in — kicking away from Erickson. With Peerman, that generally doesn’t happen. The back only returned four kickoffs throughout the duration of the 2015 season.
And when Peerman lead-blocks for the Bengals’ kickoff return men, it’s easy to see why even a guy like Tate could break off the occasional long return. Peerman is an absolute monster in the kickoff return game. On this play, Peerman lights up Ravens safety Marqueston Huff (42), sending him into another ZIP code on a huge block.
Here’s the broadcast angle of the play:
Don’t be surprised to see a long Erickson kickoff return in the near future, as he nearly broke off long returns multiple times on Sunday. On one return, a shoelace tackle prevented what could’ve been a 50+ yard return by Erickson, who was put into a one-on-one with the Ravens’ kickoff specialist behind a solid Peerman lead block.
The Bengals’ decision to bring back Peerman off injured reserve appeared difficult at first, but it became a no-brainer when Giovani Bernard suffered a season-ending injury. Peerman likely won’t see snaps at running back, but his return from injury gives Burkhead the opportunity to take special teams plays off as he prepares to go in on offense. Sure, Jackson was a first-round pick who fans are eager to see take snaps. I believe that redshirting rookies hasn’t been a beneficial tactic by the Bengals’ coaching staff. But in this scenario, when it’s deciding whether to promote a guy who may well be the very best in the NFL at his respective role, compared to a first-round rookie who, at best, will be a dime corner in his first season, the Bengals’ decision makes a lot of sense.
Lost season or not, Peerman’s presence on the roster is a good thing for the Bengals. And while we won’t be fortunate enough to see Jackson get some late-season snaps, we could at least watch another rookie, in Erickson, make some plays here and there in the return game.
If it were Jackson promoted to the roster, that more than likely wouldn’t be possible. Fans will make the argument Jackson can play special teams (and they’re not wrong), but the corner would play an entirely different position — gunner, most likely — on the unit. And as we’ve seen, with guys like Chykie Brown making plays, gunner isn’t the most difficult position to pick up. With guys like Dennard, Smith and even fellow rookie corner KeiVarae Russell capable of playing gunner, the argument that Jackson can play special teams doesn’t hold much weight. That’s not to mention the Bengals would need to find a running back on someone’s practice squad (or on the slim free agent market) either capable of taking third down snaps at running back or good enough on special teams (to allow Burkhead more time on offense) to justify promoting Jackson, which is a long-shot at best.
It would have been great to see Jackson take the field in his rookie season, but neither Peerman nor the Bengals’ coaching staff is to blame. Rather, blame the unfortunate injury the rookie suffered early in the season. Blaming things on bad luck is often frustrating, but in this case, it’s the easiest thing to do.