Special teams is one third of football, but still, no one really notices unless it is great or awful. The latter is becoming the reality in Cincinnati.
The Bengals are at that point where, if we look back on some of the team’s losses, they probably didn’t have much success on special teams. This is a unit the Bengals have rarely had to worry about in the Marvin Lewis era. They have annually finished in the top half of the league.
However, they seem to have fallen from grace in 2017. The Bengals finished tied for the 24th worst special teams, according to Rick Gosselin’s rankings for Talk of Fame Sports Network.
Gosselin ranks all the NFL’s special teams by assigning points to things like kickoff returns, blocked field goals and everything else down to penalties. It is really a one of a kind list, and the Bengals annually have finished very high in it.
In 2015 the Bengals had one of the top special teams in the NFL, according to the same list. This was after a few seasons of finishing near the top of the list. The Bengals had one of the top coverage units in the NFL. Opponents rarely were able to gain yards during returns. They also didn’t allow a single kickoff or punt return for a touchdown that season.
In 2016, the team still finished in the top half of the NFL, but there was a noticeable regression. This unit was saved with blocked kicks, big returns and a solid coverage unit that saw a dip in production after missing Cedric Peerman for most of the season.
If anyone was paying attention, or even just took the time to look back, this 2017 dip shouldn’t be surprising. Really, what did the Bengals do well on special teams last season?
Darrin Simmons was left with a young special teams unit that again had to produce without Peerman. Clayton Fejedelem was a noticeable factor though. He was even the first special teamer alternate for the Pro Bowl.
Still, the Bengals gave up several big returns on special teams this season, including a punt return touchdown that sealed their loss to the Jaguars.
The Bengals gave up the seventh-highest kick return average in the NFL (23.2 yards per return) and the 10th-highest punt return average (9.5 yards per return).
You couple that with the fact that the Bengals struggled with any productivity returning kicks themselves, and it makes sense the team had such a large fall in the rankings.
Alex Erickson failed to reach the end zone returning kicks again this season. And this year, he didn’t have any of those long kickoff returns. His longest return went for 40 yards. The Bengals finished with the 26th-worst kick return average (19.7 yards).
They did have the 14th-highest punt return average (8.7 yards). The return unit also had an Adam Jones touchdown called back by a terrible penalty that the NFL later admitted was a mistake.
The only saving grace for the Bengals’ special teams is Kevin Huber. The Bengals finished in the top 10 of all the major punt return stats, including yards, average punt and punts inside the 20. The only category they struggled in was net yards, but that brings the return unit’s talent into the equation. This is noteworthy considering Huber is a free agent this offseason.
Overall, the Bengals have a very young special teams unit, but if there isn’t an improvement next season then changes will need to be made quickly.