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Bengals’ usually steady special teams unit faltering in 2018

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We thought that there could be issues with the Bengals’ offensive and defensive units, but special teams has been a surprising problem in 2018.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not just one thing with the Cincinnati Bengals this year—it’s many. Really, even though they are still 4-3 and in the middle of the AFC North race, we haven’t seen many “complete” performances in all phases during football games.

This offseason, questions about the potency of the offense were prevalent—largely because of the patchwork offensive line. It’s been an up-and-down ride in that facet, but the consensus is that it has been better than expected.

On defense, opinions were mixed about a new defensive coordinator and the team’s lack of priority placed on the linebacker position. With the allowance of 551 yards on Sunday night to the Chiefs, those fears have completely materialized.

But, for years, Marvin Lewis’ squads have largely had steady play from their special teams units. Sure, the search for a long-term kicker has been a bit of a roller coaster, but since Darrin Simmons arrived with Lewis in 2003, he’s seen a franchise record-holder in Shayne Graham, as well as other Pro Bowl appearances from players in the group.

Yet, somehow, the 2018 Bengals’ special teams unit has been subject to a number of issues. In fact, it’s looked more like the pre-Lewis era Bengals in the various responsibilities of the crew and it’s becoming a major, albeit quiet factor in some of the team’s three losses.

Before we dive into the examples, we should note that return man Alex Erickson has been a nice outlier. Coming into Week 7, Erickson was once again the league leader in kickoff return average, as he did as a rookie in 2016. Kicker Randy Bullock has also been relatively solid, though there have been some problems as well.

A rough past five weeks:

Week 3 versus Panthers: Let’s start back to Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers, who gave Cincinnati their first loss. The biggest gaffe from the unit was in a missed kick from Bullock.

These things happen to every kicker across the league and Cincinnati has been fortunate enough to largely avoid the kicking issues many other squads have experienced this year. Still, in looking back at a game with a 10-point loss and the Bengals having the ball in the fourth quarter in a one possession game, the sting remains.

Week 4 versus Atlanta: One week later against the Falcons, Cincinnati had a couple of problems. Marvin Hall had a couple of big kickoff returns in the game, including a 53-yard scamper to set up the Falcons’ opening touchdown drive.

Then, early in the third quarter, the Bengals faced a disastrous sequence of events. After seeing star tight end Tyler Eifert get carted off of the field, Cincinnati was in a tailspin.

Fortunately, the defense held strong and only allowed a field goal after giving up great field position. Essentially, 10 points were given to the Falcons

Week 5 versus Miami: This one was probably the worst performance of the group to date. Cincinnati was struggling mightily in the first half, particularly on offense and were desperate for points.

After trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Cincinnati opted for a field goal. The attempt was blocked and those much-needed points weren’t going to be had.

Then, while trying to get into halftime down just 7-0 at halftime, disaster struck. With just 40 seconds left, Jakeem Grant took a Kevin Huber punt 71 yards for what should have been a back-breaking score.

Week 7 versus Chiefs: The fact that NBC’s production crew played the theme to The Harlem Globetrotters was pretty apropos. It’s especially the case with one of the plays by the Bengals’ special teams unit.

Though the Bengals got off to slow start offensively, they actually were facing just a 7-0 deficit in the second quarter. Then, the snowball got pushed downhill in the form of a miscommunication on special teams.

It’s unclear what exactly happened between Simmons, snapper Clark Harris and Clayton Fejedelem. The result was catastrophic and kick-started the rout by Kansas City.

“I didn’t get the whole call,” said Fejedelem after the game to the press. “Loud stadium. The call didn’t get all the way across and it ended up being a little bit of a catastrophe.”

Awesome.

The possible reasons:

Youth and inexperience: Gone are stalwarts like Cedric Peerman, as the team swapped his services for a slew of young defensive backs and the like. Even Fejedelem, a special teams captain, is only in his second year.

Special teams is usually where young players on the roster and lower round draft picks cut their teeth, but it still takes time for players to grasp the concepts and speed of the NFL game.

Injuries: Throughout the first portion of the season, Cincinnati has lost a number of guys to injuries who contribute on special teams. Vincent Rey is an example, but there is also a domino effect, of sorts to also point to.

For instance, when you lose both your starting tight ends in Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft to injury, a guy like C.J. Uzomah suddenly gets propelled into a higher-profile role on offense and thus, he isn’t on special teams. There are other cases of this through the first seven games as well.

More coaching ineffectiveness: Quite honestly, maybe Simmons should have been escorted out of Cincinnati this offseason with the slew of other coaches. He’s had a stronger resume than most who were ushered out of jobs, but this is one of the worst units we’ve seen from the veteran coach—and we’re not even halfway through the season.

If the problem is more the first two reasons, then perhaps things will even out as players get healthy and gain experience. If not, then it’s just another coach in a line of current Bengals staffers who should be on the hot seat.