NFL Nation: darrin simmons

CINCINNATI -- Let's go ahead and give an answer to the question in the headline above because it's a simple one.

Opportunity and fearlessness are why Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Adam Jones is leading the NFL in both punt and kick return average.

For the first time since an impromptu appearance in the 2012 playoffs, Jones finally has been given consistent chances to return kickoffs, and he's taking full advantage. With those chances he's doing exactly what he does when returning punts: desperately trying to pick up yards regardless of where he catches the ball on the field.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
Patrick Semansky/Associated PressAdam Jones is leading the NFL in both punt (15.8) and kick return (32.8) average this season.
"I'm just glad he's on our team and not a team we have to play," Bengals punter Kevin Huber said.

Among qualifying players, Jones tops the punt-returning list with a 15.8-yards-per-return average. He ranks first in kickoff returns, taking the ball out an average of 32.8 yards. He very nearly had a return for touchdown on his first kick return of the season when he was pulled down from behind just three yards from the end zone on a 97-yard return that gave the Bengals a necessary spark in their 37-37 overtime tie with the Panthers.

Special-teams coordinator Darrin Simmons this week admitted to being stingy with giving Jones kick-return chances earlier this season.

"He's earned more shots," Simmons said. "Situations dictate sometimes we put him in there. I probably should have put him in there earlier on kickoff returns. I needed to feel confident how he was going to react to what he was going to do when he was in there."

Simmons' early-season hesitance stemmed from belief in his other kick returner, Brandon Tate. With the thought that receiver Marvin Jones would return from a preseason foot injury by Week 5 or 6, the Bengals felt OK with giving Tate as many return chances as they could. They thought they could get by all season without having to keep him too fresh for his own receiving duties.

But when Marvin Jones was formally placed on season-ending injured reserve Oct. 14, two days after the tie with the Panthers, it became evident that Tate's offensive responsibilities were about to grow. With Pro Bowler A.J. Green also nursing a toe injury, Tate's plate needed to be cleared. That was especially the case considering the relative health the Bengals' cornerbacks had. So opportunities presented themselves for Jones to play more on special teams.

Since his kick-return debut five weeks ago, Jones has returned 10 kicks. He's now one of 22 players in the NFL with double-digit returns, including Tate, who has 12. But only three of Tate's have come since the Week 6 game against Carolina.

In addition to his league-leading kick-return average, Jones' also is better at producing strong starting field position for his offense than any player with 10 or more returns. The Bengals have an average of 66.1 yards to go -- meaning they start around their own 34 -- when beginning a drive after a Jones kick return or touchback. That's about nine yards closer than the league average of 75.4 yards. It's also better than Tate's average starting field position of 78.4 yards to go after a return or touchback.

"He runs with a purpose. He's fearless," Huber said. "He's just got a good knack for finding the hole, hitting the hole hard, avoiding tacklers. He's a shifty guy. He's always been like that. He can make guys miss.

For evidence of Jones' fearlessness, consider this: He still hasn't fair caught a punt since Nov. 16, 2006, when he played for Tennessee. That's a stretch of 89 returns without a fair catch.

If Jones leads in both punt and kick return average all season, he'll accomplish a feat the NFL hasn't seen since 1991, when Detroit's Mel Gray led the league in both categories.

W2W4: Cincinnati Bengals

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:00
PM ET
The Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) and the New York Jets (1-0) play their second game of the preseason at 7 p.m. ET Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium.

1. Preseason payback? Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson told his team's website last weekend that he and his teammates "owe" the Bengals for the 49-9 loss they were handed in Cincinnati last October. Richardson felt that no other offense dominated the Jets' defense quite like the Bengals did last season. So even though he'll only be on the field for a few first-half plays, Richardson still wants the Bengals to know that his team is better than it showed last regular season. The Bengals are embracing Richardson's challenge, saying they are glad to face an opponent who will play with a little passion and energy in the preseason. It's very rare teams for teams to display that passion, as players, for the most part, try to tiptoe through the preseason without getting injured.

2. Life without Marvin. The Bengals will play Saturday for the first time since news came this week that receiver Marvin Jones needed surgery to help heal a bone broken during last Saturday's in-stadium practice. This actually will be the second preseason game the Bengals will have had without him after he took last week's game off while making his slow return from an ankle injury that caused him to miss part of training camp. A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu already were expected to fill Jones' shoes, but who else will? Keep an eye out for Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher, Ryan Whalen, James Wright, Cobi Hamilton and Colin Lockett. All will try to showcase their playmaking ability, even though Tate, Sanzenbacher, Wright and Hamilton stand the best odds of filling Jones' shoes until he returns Oct. 5 against the Patriots.

3. Better tackling. Cincinnati's tackling efforts left a lot to be desired last week at Kansas City. Among the topics coach Marvin Lewis was quickest to highlight following the preseason opener was his team's lack of good, fundamental tackling. It cost the Bengals at times on defense, and really hurt them on special teams. Last week's game was the first time any of the players had tackled live since last season. Lewis and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons are hoping those tackling concerns clear up this week.
CINCINNATI -- There will be other, more glamorous free-agency signings than the one the Cincinnati Bengals announced just before noon Tuesday. That is a fact.

But that shouldn't diminish the importance of the organization's decision to bring back Brandon Tate.

OK, so his name didn't have the free-agency sex appeal of Michael Johnson's. He wasn't courted by as many teams as Andrew Hawkins and won't be making as much money next year as Anthony Collins. Still, his return to Cincinnati has a much deeper meaning than the fact he's a little-used backup receiver who occasionally returns a few kicks.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Brandon Tate
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsFifth-year veteran Brandon Tate is considered to be one of the Cincinnati Bengals' "core special teams players," says coordinator Darrin Simmons.
Tate's re-signing embodies what this particular offseason will be all about for the Bengals. When it comes to adding and retaining players, the mission in 2014 is about creating depth. You've already seen it in free agency with Cincinnati's re-signing of offensive guard Mike Pollak last weekend. You'll see it in the draft when the Bengals start looking at cornerbacks who can play both the edge and the slot, as well as offensive linemen who can line up at some combination of guard, center and tackle.

Since their starting rotations are nearly set with defensive end Michael Johnson as the only casualty from 2013's regular rotation (it seems it will stay that way), the Bengals are calmly going through this offseason looking like a team with few major needs to address. That's why once the attention surrounding Johnson and Collins begins to fade, the Bengals' focus will shift toward role players, such as Tate.

The role Tate played last year in his third season in Cincinnati was an important one. Among qualifying kick returners he ranked ninth in the league in kick return average, consistently advancing the ball 26.1 yards per return. He also served as the team's primary punt returner once injuries in the secondary forced longtime return man Adam Jones to be a special teams observer.

While he was mostly better at returning kickoffs than he was at returning punts, Tate still had a knack for breaking a timely punt return, too. Arguably his best punt return of 2013 was a 29-yarder in overtime that helped set up Mike Nugent's game-winning field goal at Buffalo in October.

"Brandon's numbers speak for themselves, and I've got a lot of confidence in him," Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. "This could be a real breakout year for him."

Simmons and the Bengals haven't yet said whether Tate will remain the team's starting punt returner, but his statement of confidence seems a clear indication they're hopeful he can continue contributing there. With the anticipation of having a fully healthy secondary ahead of training camp, the Bengals have good reason to put Jones back in the normal punt-return rotation.

Tate's return gives the Bengals options, and those options could even increase in the coming months depending upon which players the Bengals end up drafting. Some of the defensive backs who stand the best chance of being claimed early in the draft by Cincinnati have punt and/or kick return experience.

Along with Tate's occasionally explosive special teams play, he also provides a measure of sure-handedness. In his five NFL seasons -- the first two in New England -- Tate has only one fumble and three dropped passes in 71 attempts. He's another veteran who not only knows what it takes to win in Cincinnati, but has some measure of postseason experience with a franchise regarded as one of the NFL's modern-era dynasties.

There's also the depth Tate provides at receiver. One of the deepest returning positions, the Bengals have strong personnel numbers at receiver. Still, they need to bolster their ranks there just in case. Hawkins is an unrestricted free agent, as is Dane Sanzenbacher. After offering tenders to both players last week, the Bengals are in wait-and-see mode until another team formally offers the pair salary numbers that can be matched. In the event Cincinnati can't match one or both of the free-agent receivers, at least they still have Tate as a last resort pass-catching option.

No, Tate's re-signing isn't sexy nor should it even be attempted to be construed that way. But it's just the type of important, depth-chart specific move that a team looking to build off its relative success from a year ago is trying to maintain.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
4:30
PM ET

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 41-20 victory against the Cleveland Browns.

What it means: After getting derailed in their two previous games, the Bengals showed glimpses of their former selves in Sunday's blowout against the Browns. From a scoring perspective, they had a truly complete game, getting touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams. It was their best team performance since their 49-9 Week 8 home victory against the New York Jets. Even though quarterback Andy Dalton still struggled to get into a rhythm and play like the signal-caller who breezed through October, he still threw three touchdowns. Most importantly, though, Sunday's victory extended the Bengals' AFC North lead to 2 1/2 games over the Browns, who entered in a second-place tie with the Baltimore Ravens. If the Ravens beat the Chicago Bears -- their weather-delayed game didn't end until after the Bengals-Browns tilt -- Cincinnati's lead remains 1 1/2 games over them.

Stock watch: Bengals special teams: rising. Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons has been hinting much of the season at how he believed his various units were making progress. That progress was quite visible against the Browns when his punt return team tipped one punt, blocked another (returning it for a touchdown) and set up a 27-yard return that was the longest of the season for Adam Jones. Add in punter Kevin Huber's 44.6 punting average and Mike Nugent's two made field goals, and it's clear Cincinnati's special teams had their best single-game showing of the season.

Momentum changer: Early in the game, it appeared the Bengals were headed for a third straight loss. They spotted the Browns 13 points in the first quarter, and even gave up a defensive touchdown when cornerback Joe Haden jumped a pass route on A.J. Green and sprinted in for a 29-yard interception return for a touchdown. With 44 seconds remaining in the period, though, the momentum shifted. Bengals linebacker James Harrison tried to replicate Haden, tipping a Jason Campbell pass to himself and breaking tackles and pirouetting into the end zone. A penalty after the interception took away the touchdown, but it wouldn't matter. The Bengals ended up scoring on the ensuing possession, kicking off a string of 31 unanswered Bengals points. Their 31 points in the second quarter marked a franchise record for points in a single quarter.

What's Next? The Bengals (7-4) will have two weeks off before going for their second straight win. They'll spend the next 14 days rehabbing minor injuries and getting refocused for their final four games of the regular season. That end-of-year stretch begins Dec. 1 when they travel to San Diego.
CINCINNATI -- As more healthy players finally return to their defensive backfield, the Cincinnati Bengals are starting to see a sort of domino effect play out on the rest of the team.

It's one they are happy to see.

Now that Dre Kirkpatrick and Reggie Nelson have come back from injuries, and Leon Hall and Brandon Ghee appear poised this weekend to do the same, the Bengals are in the enviable position of having a perfectly healthy secondary. By extension, it means they ought to have a fully healthy group of special teams units, too. As strange as it might sound to some, the amount of injuries in one area of a team very much coincides with the amount of injuries on another.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBetter timing is all that is keeping Adam Jones from breaking a long punt return, says special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.
"We've got a lot of moving parts," special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said of his unit. "Hopefully now with the injuries we're starting to get through, guys can settle in. Through the first five games, we were very unsettled as far as personnel."

That's one big reason why he believes Cincinnati wasn't as good as it could be on punt returns through the first quarter of the season. After witnessing a couple of flashes on one of the two returns the Bengals did have against New England last weekend, Simmons said this week that he believed his now more stable return group was getting "close" to being exactly where it should.

Adam Jones, the veteran cornerback who also returns punts for the Bengals, missed two games on special teams because of a dearth of players at his defensive position. Forced into making him a defensive starter, Cincinnati couldn't run the risk of getting Jones hurt on the punt return unit. If he did get injured trying to return punts, the Bengals would not only have been without a punt returner, they would have been down a much-needed defensive player.

Sunday's game against the Patriots was Jones' first as a punt returner after the two-game layoff. Even though he only had two returns totaling 10 yards, it was the second one, on which he gained all 10 of his yards, that really caught Simmons' attention.

"On his first one, he didn't have much of a chance," Simmons said. "It was a good job by them. They did a good job of identifying some things. The second one, we had a chance to get out of it."

The Bengals were steps away from converting a long return on Jones' second return, Simmons said.

"We've just got to play it better," Simmons said. "We've got to get another block, and he's got to make one more cut."

Jones, the player also known by his nickname "Pacman," wasn't so sure about the block, but he knew if he could have been a little quicker making a decision as to which hole he wanted to sprint through, he could have ripped off a big return.

"I just have to stick it," Jones said. "Hopefully I'll get better this week, get a little bit of room and see if I can wiggle through there."

He displayed significant wiggle in the season opener when he broke off a 50-yard punt return that had the potential to set the Bengals up with great field position for a score. The play was nullified, though, when officials penalized Cedric Peerman for an illegal block below the waist.

Jones hasn't had a return as long since. Overall this season, he has four returns for 29 yards. Again, Simmons says a big part of that is because the Bengals haven't had much continuity on their special teams units as roles have shifted on the various coverage and return teams because of injuries. Another factor is the lack of opportunities Jones has had because of those injuries.

Another lesser, but still important, factor has to do with Jones himself.

"He's got so much confidence in himself, and that's the good and the bad," Simmons said. "In his mind, he's going to score every time."

Because of that thought process, Jones has a tendency to over-think his returns, Simmons said. At times, he'll try to dance a little too much or not fire through his best hole quick enough because he thinks he sees another.

"You've got to be decisive, and once he's decisive, he's got to go," Simmons said. "That's the good part and the bad part about him. The good part about that is what you saw in the Chicago game. He can make a ton of cuts that nobody in the league can make.

"The time he makes one too many cuts, he gets tackled."

At earlier points in his career, Jones wasn't getting tackled much. Twice since 2005, he has averaged more than 10 yards a return. In 2006, arguably his best all-around season, he took back three for touchdowns. In his career, he has five punt returns for touchdowns.

"The more opportunities he gets, the better he'll get," Simmons said. "The return game is a lot about timing. It's getting to this spot at this time when this guy gets there, and it's not quite there yet."

But it's close.

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