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Bengals special teams unit helping carry team

While the offensive and defensive units tend to get more attention, the Bengals' special teams squad has helped immensely in their 6-0 start this season.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

NFL fans fawn over skill position players and usually rightfully so, but that often leads to special teams units getting overlooked. That is, until a kicker misses a critical field goal, a punter shanks one or a returner muffs a punt for a huge fumble. Then, fans take notice and let their outrage show. Like the old adage, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone", teams and fans don't fully realize the value of special teams until they have a poor squad.

This year, the Cincinnati Bengals have had an exceptional output from their offense and a boost in the pass rush on defense to help pave the way to a 6-0 start. But, especially recently, the special teams unit has been outstanding and has greatly contributed to wins.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't overly enthralled with the unit, aside from punter Kevin Huber. But, the team has made the wise decision to use Adam Jones more often on returns and kicker Mike Nugent has hit every field goal since his last miss three weeks ago against the Chiefs.

Here are some of the statistical highlights from the team and their special teams unit in 2015:

  • Though he's punted just 23 times this year (24th most in the NFL), Kevin Huber has placed 12 of those kicks inside the opposition's 20-yard line. This ranking is good for No. 4 in the league and has helped the Bengals to win the field position battle in 2015.
  • The Bengals rank No. 3 in punt return yards with 214 on the year. Adam Jones has 121 of those yards on just 10 returns, while Brandon Tate has 93 yards of his own and an average of 10.3 yards per return.
  • Their 11.3 yards per punt return ranks eighth in the NFL.
  • The Bengals are tied for No. 8 in the league with the allowance of just 70 punt return yards on the season.
  • Cincinnati is tied for ninth in average yards per kick return allowed at 21.6. They haven't allowed a return touchdown on punts or kickoffs this season.
  • Though Mike Nugent is kicking field goals at a sub-78 percent clip, he's hit his last four attempts in a row. He's also second in the NFL with 21 extra points--not as easy as a feat than in previous years, given the rules changes.

In the return coverage game, big tests are forthcoming with two games against the Steelers, one against the Rams and another versus the Cardinals. Names like Antonio Brown, Tavon Austin and Patrick Peterson await the unit.

The other challenge that might rear its ugly head is the poor weather and conditions coming down the pike as the temperature drops. Nugent has made his share of big kicks, but he isn't known as having the strongest leg. This could provide problems for the veteran kicker, especially as it gets windy on longer attempts.

A big key going forward will be the usage and subsequent health of Jones on returns. While he won't and maybe even shouldn't take every attempt, the hope is that the team will continue to use him in an effort to provide a spark for the team. He's done so the past two games against Seattle and Buffalo with increased touches.