The Bengals have had their fair share of problems on both sides of the ball this year. But, in last week’s game against Washington, as the offense came back to life, special teams took a nosedive. The Bengals can’t afford another aspect of their performance to suffer.
They say you should never worry about the “what if’s.” That’s probably good advice. But it won’t make it any easier to swallow that the Bengals might have made it to the playoffs if Mike Nugent had made a PAT this week.
Now, to be clear, the season isn’t over for the Bengals. At 3-4-1, they still stand a chance in an AFC that’s weaker than it’s been in years. But their special teams can’t afford to keep playing like it did this week. They’ve helped carry the team to this point, and they have the ability to take the whole ship down with them if they tank. Here’s a look at the major problems plaguing the Bengals’ special teams of late.
Until two weeks ago, Mike Nugent was having the best season of his career. He hadn’t missed any crucial kicks, and he’d been 100% from inside 40 yards. In the game with his only miss of the season, he’d also nailed a game-winner from 47 yards out. He’d even had a stellar 5-5 performance against the Dolphins in Week 4. Fans no longer had a sinking feeling when he lined up to kick.
But starting with the Browns game in Week 7, hints of the inconsistent Nugent we saw last year began to peek out. The Bengals beat the Browns comfortably, so it wasn’t a point of emphasis, but Nugent made only 1 of his 3 attempted field goals. This week, he again missed two kicks. In close games, every point counts. The four points that Nugent left on the field last week burned the Bengals in the end.
If Nugent continues to miss kicks, the Bengals may have a tough choice on their hands—find a new kicker or watch their already abysmal season get worse.
Erickson and traditional Bengals’ return man Adam Jones have both gotten opportunities to receive punts this year, but neither has been able to get much going. Jones’ longest return this year is 12 yards, which is only a fraction of a yard longer than his average return last year. Erickson’s longest return is just three yards more than Jones’.
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Their combined return average this year is 5.1 yards, the worst in the league. Their combined longest return is 15 yards, also the worst in the league. Additionally, they’ve coughed up the ball on returns three times this year. Yes, their returning has been bad. But, it hasn’t been all their fault…
Gunners and Vises
Time for our special teams vocabulary lesson. A gunner is a player that runs down the field for a tackle in special teams coverage, and a vise is a player on the other team running down the field trying to block them. And they’re both something the Bengals could upgrade.
The Bengal’s draft strategy isn’t influenced by big-name stars or flashy measurables, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. But it can take its toll on special teams. These return woes aren’t all causing themselves. Either through free-agency or the draft, the Bengals need to find speed on the outside. Their lack of burst getting downfield on punts is quickly becoming a problem.
Rex Burkhead and Clayton Fejedelem are solid tacklers, but they get consistently burned in their sprints on punts. They often struggle to keep up with the opponent’s gunners, which leads to fair catches and low return averages. Additionally, With Kevin Huber having one of the worst statistical seasons of his career, the Bengals need to cover the opponent’s return man better than ever. An addition of speed might be just what the Bengals need.
The Bengals’ playoff hopes are still alive heading into their Week 9 bye, but with this last tie, they’re beginning to fade quickly. If the Bengals want a playoff berth, improved special teams play is a must.