Special teams has typically been one of the Bengals’ strengths during the Marvin Lewis era.
Whether it was Peter Warrick or Tab Perry breaking off big returns, Cedric Peerman running fake punts to perfection, or Shayne Graham breaking franchise kicking records, this has been an area in which Cincinnati has usually gotten great production compared to the rest of the NFL.
Under special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, Cincinnati once again thrived in the often-forgotten third aspect of football. Thanks to a number of explosive returns, blocked kicks and solid coverage teams in limiting opponents to minimal gains nearly every time they touched the ball, Cincinnati once again finished in the top half of Rick Gosselin with the Dallas Morning News' annual analysis of each special teams unit.
Gosselin ranks the NFL's 32 teams in 22 special teams categories annually with points assigned in each category according to their standing (one for the best through 32 for the worst).
The Bengals come in at No. 13 while having none of the best or worst rankings in those 22 categories. This ranking also illustrates how important this can be for teams as eight of the top 12 teams had winning records, seven of them made the playoffs, and 10 of those teams won eight-plus games. That shows you that a great special teams unit can help be the difference in playing in the postseason or sitting at home come January.
The Bengals finished ranked 8th in this ranking last year, and that team went 12-4 while winning the AFC North. That team also had five wins come by just one score, so had their special teams unit not been as good, perhaps the Bengals would have lost a few more of those close games in 2015.
And you can blame the special teams for at least a part of Cincinnati’s 6-9-1 record this year, especially when it came to Mike Nugent missing far too many short field goals and/or extra points, and then Randy Bullock’s miss in Houston. Their seven combined missed field goals (21 points) and six missed PATs (6 points) accounted for 27 lost points.
The Bengals’ last five losses in 2016 alone were by a grand total of 16 points, so just having a deficiency in one area of special teams can cost a team dearly in the span of a 16-game season.
There’s also the fact that Cincinnati’s punting was noticeably worse than it’s been in recent years. Kevin Huber had been one of the league’s better punters for much of his tenure, but he wasn’t quite as effective in 2016.
His net punting has dipped for two straight years and got down to 39.5 in 2016. He’s also averaged just 22.5 punts inside the 20-yard line. Most NFL punters can hit closer to 40 net average and 30 downed inside the 20, so perhaps the Bengals will search for an eventual replacement in this year’s NFL Draft.
One area in which the Bengals didn’t change at all this year was kickoff coverage, where they ranked No. 8 overall in 2016 after finishing 2015 at that same spot. Everyone thought not having Cedric Peerman on the kickoff coverage teams would hurt, but while he was still effective when he eventually returned from a broken forearm, guys like Rex Burkhead help keep that unit operating like normal.
That’s where not having Peerman was felt most, and it’s no coincidence that area improved towards the end of the season when he was back from injury. This is also why we should expect the Bengals to re-sign Peerman this offseason.
Perhaps the biggest reason why Cincinnati’s special teams ranked as highly as it did in Gosselin’s ranking this year was due to Alex Erickson becoming one of the best returners as a rookie. Erickson led the NFL this season in kick return yardage and ranked second in kick return yards per attempt. He was even honored by Pro Football Focus as one of the top kickoff returners in 2016 on their list of the best special teams players in the NFL this season.
All in all, the Bengals didn’t take that big of a step back in terms of special teams this past year, but it was enough to be the difference in several close games. Hopefully, this unit gets back to being among the league’s best instead of just being one of the better units.