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Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Morning Stripes: Special-teams lessons

By Coley Harvey

The three key members of the Cincinnati Bengals' special-teams units each had strong seasons contributing to the overall success of the team.

It's the pieces around them, though -- the blockers and first-responding tacklers on punt and kick coverage -- who need to continue to hone their skills and sharpen the finer details of their respective games. If they do that this offseason, the Bengals are confident their punting, kicking and return games will be even better in 2014.

This past season, punter Kevin Huber ranked seventh in the league in net punting average before a blindside hit in Week 15 caused him to break his jaw and crack a vertebrae, thus ending his year. Had it not been for the 67-yard punt return touchdown that Huber and the Bengals gave up on the play that ended his season, his net average likely would have been higher than the 40.5 yards that it settled at with the return. The NFL later said the hit that hurt Huber should have been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Had that happened, the return would have been nullified.

Along with Huber's overall heroics, which included punts of 75 and 70 yards, the Bengals also got a lift from kicker Mike Nugent, who wasn't used often, but was effective when he was. In back-to-back weeks in the middle of the season, he buried game-winning field goals. Both were from beyond 40 yards.

In addition to Nugent's strong leg, kick and punt returner Brandon Tate showcased a knack for giving Cincinnati's offense good field position. His numbers improved as the season went on, but he finished ranked fifth in the league in kick return yards and seventh in punt return yards. The punt return yards came after he split time early in the year with Adam Jones. Once injuries hit the Bengals' cornerbacks and safeties, Jones was shelved on special teams in an effort to keep as many bodies healthy in the secondary as possible.

Still, as good as Huber, Nugent and Tate may have been statistically, the Bengals know all three could have performed even better. One way those three can see better productivity? Keep getting the players around them to block fundamentally on returns and to shed them quickly when trying to make coverage stops.

The last two seasons in particular, the Bengals have had a measure of continuity on their special teams as backups who have been part of the team the last three or four years are getting more and more acclimated to executing the wishes of special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. With many of those players back next season, including rookies like Shawn Williams and Margus Hunt, the Bengals won't have much overall teaching to do on special teams then, either. Their upcoming lessons will be all about honing the finer details.