Monday, May 5, 2003

Simmons' assignment: Improve special teams

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bengals special teams were anything but special in 2002. But they've become a primary focus through the team's first two minicamps under coach Marvin Lewis.

"We're going to spend a proportional amount of time on the field, as much as we can," Lewis said after Sunday's second minicamp practice at Paul Brown Stadium.

How bad were they in 2002?

The opposition scored five touchdowns against Bengals special teams - three on punt returns, one on a kickoff return and one on a blocked punt return.

Other than kickoff returns and field goal percentage, the Bengals were near the bottom of every special teams ranking:

• Net punting average, last, 28.7 yards;

• Average drive start defending kickoffs, last, 33.2-yard line;

• Punt return average, second to last, 4.7 yards.

The job of turning Bengals special teams from liability into asset belongs to first-year special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who replaced Al Roberts.

Simmons, who turned 30 in April, spent the past five seasons working under the NFL's special teams guru, Carolina special teams coach Scott O'Brien.

"Obviously, in hiring Darrin, I hired a clone of the guy I have a great deal of respect for, Scott O'Brien," Lewis said. "Darrin is cut right from that cloth. I know we'll be well coached. ... We want to be aggressive with it, and Darrin is very aggressive in coaching it."

Like Lewis, Simmons is detail-oriented. In fact, Simmons said Sunday between minicamp practices, the smallest details separate success and failure on special teams.

"Players at this level are too equal," Simmons said. "You have to give your players every possible advantage you can over the next guy."

Simmons' special teams received prime-time treatment in minicamp practices. They weren't an afterthought.

In punt formation, Simmons reached beneath blockers to adjust their foot and legs.

He is teaching punters to rotate the ball on the drop so they hit the sweet spot each time.

He showed kicker Neil Rackers the importance of using the exact approach on each kick.

"I've been to a ridiculous amount of camps, and I've never had anyone tell me the reason I miss field goals is because my alignment is bad," said Rackers, who was 15 of 18 on field goals in 2002. "I was a little shorter to the ball, a little farther away, coming at the ball from a different angle. He hammers down on me to do it the same each time."

Simmons has gotten punt returners extra work by incorporating a modified Juggs pitching machine to launch kicks.

"We've gone a lot with our punt catchers, which is something we need to get better at, and them reading the ball off the foot," Lewis said.

The punt coverage teams have received a lot of work, too.

Second-year safety Marquand Manuel has learned how to better run the punt coverage team as the punters' personal protector - or deep man.

"Just a whole bunch about disguising, unfolding all the scenarios that could happen, being able to be patient, being able to be the quarterback on the punt team, how not to panic," Manuel said of his role.



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