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Saturday, September 21, 2013
Bengals need to play keep-away from Cobb

By Coley Harvey

CINCINNATI -- The question posed to Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka was a serious one.

What makes Randall Cobb be able to do what he does?

Kevin Huber
Bengals punter Kevin Huber aims to keep the ball away from Packers return specialist Randall Cobb in their Week 3 game Sunday.
What Cobb, the former Kentucky standout who just four years ago was the Wildcats' version of "Slash," does is cause nightmares for opposing defenses and punt coverage units. In the three years he has spent with the Green Bay Packers, the receiver/return specialist and former college quarterback has become a household name around the NFL because of his speed, which features an extra gear of acceleration that most average humans can't muster.

So again, what makes Randle Cobb be able to do what he does?

"Genetics? Who knows," Iloka eventually answered. "He's a tremendous athlete, so you have to try to neutralize those types of guys and get them out of the game."

When the Bengals host the Packers on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, they will need to borrow a page from the game plan they used against Chicago two weeks ago: play keep-away from the opponent's most dynamic playmaker. Although the overall scheme may have resulted in a loss, that one part of the plan paid enormous dividends back then, and it definitely could do the same now.

"The first time I saw him was, I'm not sure if it was a kick return or a punt return, but that's kind of when everybody got a glimpse of him," Bengals cornerback Leon Hall said. "You could see something special, but you thought about it as far as special teams were concerned. It is pretty amazing to see him do what he's done at the receiver position."

Since bursting on the professional scene as a backup receiver in 2011, Cobb has been one of the league's best in receptions, yards, yards after the catch and yards after contact. Across that stretch, he ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in both yards after the catch (739) and yards after contact among receivers (223). This season alone, he has 103 yards after catch. Only four receivers and one running back have more YAC yards this year. Two of those players, Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, already have statistics for three games following Thursday night's Week 3 opener that pitted their teams against one another.

Clearly, Cobb has the ability to make plays in space. But it isn't only in the pass-catching game where the speedster can be a real threat. He can take over in both return games too, turning a routine punt into a score, or a deep kickoff into an even deeper kick return.

With two punt returns for touchdowns in his career so far, Cobb has averaged a score every 29 punt returns.

Bad news too, Bengals fans: He's due. Cobb's last punt return for touchdown came 30 returns ago, when he took back a 75-yard return for touchdown in Green Bay's opener against San Francisco last season.

On Sunday, it will be up to Bengals punter Kevin Huber and his coverage team to prevent Cobb from notching punt return touchdown No. 3.

"He's a good returner," Huber said. "He's a big, physical, fast returner. He runs downhill well. We just have to get down there and make him cut and kind of get him around and give him not much room to work with."

Against the Bears' electric return man Devin Hester in Week 1, the Bengals did just that. When they weren't playing keep-away and avoiding him altogether, they routinely had him surrounded at the end of Huber's high, long punts. On the two that Hester elected to return, the return team was there so quickly that Hester could only amass 1 yard combined on the punts.

"If you can force a guy to get out of his comfort zone, and if I can get out of a game with a guy like Hester where he had a couple of yards returning, it's a huge win," Huber said.

Like Cincinnati's defensive backs who are eager about taking on the task of slowing Cobb in the pass-catching game, Huber is embracing his role of attempting to keep the ball out of the dynamic playmaker's hands. For the past two weeks he has encountered such challenges, looking for a way to prevent not only Hester, but Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown too, from breaking long returns.

"You hear all week how this guy is the best returner there was. He's got X amount of touchdowns," Huber said. "You just want to go out and be like, 'It doesn't matter who's back there. ... I want people to be able to say that he got good enough punts that these guys weren't able to do anything on him."

If Huber and the Bengals' secondary can do a good enough job -- i.e. contain Cobb in the many roles he has played -- they will bring themselves that much closer to winning this key interconference game.