For the last half decade, the Bengals’ kick/punt returning crown has belonged to Adam Jones. Brandon Tate shared duties, but Jones’ production was miles ahead of Tate’s and the cornerback often was just the spark the Bengals needed in big games. However, with Jones aging and Tate never really inspiring much confidence, the Bengals were confronted with the issue of desperately needing to find a new kick returner this offseason for the first time in a while.
Luckily, Alex Erickson absolutely exploded in the preseason and won the starting job over Brandon Tate, who was cut and ended up in Buffalo. As you would probably expect out of an undrafted rookie thrown into a starting role straight out of college, things were a bit bumpy at first (20.6 yards per kick return, 5.2 yards per punt return before Week 7).
“I don’t know if it was putting extra pressure on it or what. Coming out of the gates. We just weren’t having the success,” Erickson told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “And the thing was we knew we could do it because we’ve shown we could do it. It’s a matter of doing it consistently and I think we just kept staying after our approach in practice and sticking to the plan.”
Week 7 was when things started to change for Erickson. He busted out a 65 yard kick return against the Redskins in London, although he only recorded 7 yards on his only punt return attempt. Still, something clicked after that kick return and he has been fantastic ever since.
“He’s being very aggressive,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “There’s not a lot of dancing around with Alex. He’s not juking, and jiving and dancing with it and that’s a good thing.”
That switch that got flipped has resulted in a mind-bending 693 kick return yards on 23 attempts and 141 punt return yards on 19 attempts in the last eight games. That’s 784 total return yards in a half a season. He will have more than 1,000 combined return yards on the whole season if he can gain at least nine more yards against the Ravens on Sunday. At the moment, he leads the AFC in average kickoff return yards and leads the NFL in total kickoff return yards. He can hold on to that title with a solid performance against the Ravens.
2016 NFL Kick Return Statistics
|Ted Ginn Jr.||Car||18||391||21.72||0||59||0|
2016 NFL Punt Return Statistics
|Ted Ginn Jr.||Car||28||202||7.21||20||19||0|
“We talked about it this morning and it’s a goal,” Simmons said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re going to do whatever we can to make sure he comes out of the game with it. It would be a nice achievement for Alex and it’s something our kick return group can take pride in. But we’re winning the game first. Whatever it takes to win.”
That said, as cool as the record would be for Erickson to lead the AFC in kick return statistics, it’s not of particular concern to Erickson who is just trying to focus on playing at his highest level.
“It’s hard for me to reflect when you’re in it and your head is down and you’re pushing it,” Erickson said. “For me, I don’t really have time to reflect on it. I would think after the season there’ll be time to do that.”
It’s the right attitude to have. If Erickson stays focused on his game, the accolades will come, especially if he keeps his current pace up. That said, he doesn’t need to be told that. He knows what he’s doing at this point.
“You attack and go vertically, it puts pressure on them,” Erickson said. “They have to break down sooner and if they don’t, you cut off and they miss tackles. Being decisive puts pressure on them and being a special teams unit that’s one of our things. Pressure and the only way to do that is speed and attack them.”
The Bengals are lucky that Erickson showed up at the exact right time, as Jones was beginning to succumb to age and the Bengals were finally ready to move on from Tate. At this pace, Erickson will surely be a staple in the Bengals’ returning game for many years to come, and he’s one of many reasons to look forward to watching the Bengals in 2017.