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In the wings

Posted Aug 26, 2013

The Bengals have popped two punt returns for touchdowns this preseason and yet the man who leads all active AFC punt returners hasn't touched a ball.


Adam Jones

The Bengals have popped two punt returns for touchdowns this preseason and yet the man who leads all active AFC punt returners hasn't touched a ball.

And even though special teams are going to be the centerpiece of Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason finale against the Colts (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), cornerback Adam Jones may not get out there again.

Jones, who looks to be over a nicked rib that shelved him in Dallas last Saturday night, says he won't need to go Thursday before the Opening Day showdown on Sept. 8 in Chicago that pits the NFL's two active leaders for scoring touchdown off punt returns.

He says he doesn't even have to watch tape as he preps for the Duel in the Run against Chicago's Devin Hester.

"I'm the best," Jones said Monday. "Why would I watch tape of somebody else?"

That unbridled confidence is one of the reasons Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons covets Jones like no other and Simmons is a major reason the Bengals re-signed him in 2010 coming off a herniated neck disc.

Simmons and Jones have a deep respect for each other (Jones says Simmons helped save his career), so they aren't above giving each other brutally large doses of grief.

For instance, Simmons says he'd feel better if Jones handled a punt Thursday night before taking on the Bears. But he's waiting to get the word from head coach Marvin Lewis, a man that has done a marvelous job of trying to keep his players healthy for the opener.

"He feels better about that than I do," Simmons said of Jones. "Because the difference is he hasn't been tackled. It's up to the head coach. If he wants me to cut him loose, I'll cut him loose."

Jones admits that Hester is a great returner. But catching himself like one of those punts he's been to known to nab in practice while holding six footballs he also says, "And I am, too. It will be fun … he's had way more balls than I have. I sat out a year and I just haven't been a full-time returner like he has. But I'm eager for the challenge."

If Jones, 29, gazed at tape, Hester, 30, is the guy he'd be studying. Hester has 12 punt return TDs in his seven previous seasons, the NFL's active leader, and Jones is second with five in his six seasons. Hester has 131 more returns than Jones, but they almost have the same percentage. Hester is 12-for-246 (.049) and Jones is 5-for-115 (.043). Patrick Peterson is next with 4-for-95 and .042.

"He's not as shifty as I am. He may have a little more top-end speed than me," Jones said. "I don't know about the 40, but as far as the 100, he would definitely beat me."

No one can beat Simmons and Jones when it comes to needling each other. Wide receivers Dane Sanzenbacher (a no-touch 71-yarder in Atlanta in the opener) and Brandon Tate (a 75-yard sprint Saturday in Dallas) have beaten Jones to the end zone.  

"I bet you're the happiest. We've got two touchdowns and I haven't touched the ball yet," Jones has told him.

"It's a great problem to have," Simmons says. "We've got three guys who have the ability to score and have scored and we've got confidence in all of them. You can see Adam chomping at the bit. He's got extreme confidence in himself and he's such a great competitor. You know he's got to be thinking, 'When do I get mine?' "

They're coming. Jones popped one of his 26 chances last season, his most attempts in six seasons. Hester has had fewer than 26 chances once in his career. With Jones the Bengals third corner and playing the bulk of his snaps on third down, Simmons doesn't know how he can be a regular on fourth down even if he wishes he could take every return. Jones has to wait for Simmons's hand signal after the previous play, field position, and point in the game has all been digested. Jones knows there is depth here.

"Tate looked real good back there. The guys have done a great job blocking, but we should be making those types of plays," Jones said. "We need to step it up on special teams and that should be one of our best areas this year."

Tate had one of his own two years ago when he broke the Bengals season record with 51 punt returns. He hasn't broken one again in the 48 since he went to the house in Seattle in 2011, but Simmons thinks Tate has been taking notes on Jones.

"I think quite a bit. (Jones) prides himself on being aggressive and getting the ball up the field. He’s getting anxious to be the next guy,” said Simmons, asked if Jones has rubbed off on Tate. "The thing I’m most encouraged about is Brandon hit it and ran. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a long time and that reaffirmed it. When he does it exactly the way he’s supposed to, he’s hard to stop. He can run through people and it’s tough to tackle him."

That guy leading the cheers was Jones.

"Just hit it and go and trust yourself. Nine times out of 10 when you hit it and go and you get a crease and you trust yourself, it all works out well," Jones said. "It was a good call, good job up front and (Tate) did the rest by trusting his speed and not cutting back on the punter. That was a good call."

But Jones says there is only so much you can do to prepare to return a punt.

"You really can't tell a person exactly how to run a return," Jones said. "You can give him options and reads, but once he catches the ball, a lot of that stuff is instinct because you don't have time to think."

Simmons knows one way to get a touchdown.

Good blocking and his guys have done it all preseason.

"Anytime you score," he said, "they all count."

Which is why special teams is going to be riveting Thursday night. The Bengals have a pretty good idea who is going to be let go after the game, but there may be one or two spots up in the air that could shift one way or the other and we're talking about the bottom of the roster, the guys that play for Simmons.

Their work on special teams already seems to have locked up spots for running back Cedric Peerman and linebacker Vincent Rey. Safety Jeromy Miles hopes it does, too, in his faceoff with Taylor Mays. Is the sixth cornerback Shaun Prater or Chris Lewis-Harris? Is the sixth linebacker J.K. Schaffer or Jayson DiManche? Is the fullback Orson Charles or John Conner? Of these three receivers, which two make it? Sanzenbacher, Ryan Whalen or rookie Cobi Hamilton? Is the fourth running back Daniel Herron or rookie Rex Burkhead?

Sanzenbacher, with a 59-yard kick return Saturday, has shined in the return game. Schaffer had the big block on Sanzenbacher's TD in Atlanta. DiManche had one on Tate's TD. Tate's quick decision was rewarded.

"The gunner on the other side was dominated and that was Chris Lewis-Harris and Marvin Jones," Simmons said. "Jayson DiManche got his man blocked. It was a combination of everyone. It’s good blocking and poor coverage.”

Bur Simmons isn't looking at just one play and Lewis just isn’t looking at special teams. And the Colts game is just one of four in the cutting process.

"You have a decent idea but there’s always several spots up for grabs. It’s important to a lot of guys in the room,” Simmons said. "As long as guys go out and stay healthy. There are guys who are going to be featured.”

But maybe not the featured guy on special teams.

"It doesn't matter," Adam Jones said of Thursday night. "I'm confident being back there with the practice reps I get that I'm not missing anything."

TOP ACTIVE PUNT RETURN TDS

» Devin Hester 12-for-246, .049

» Adam Jones 5-for-115, .043

» Patrick Peterson 4-for-95, .042

» Reggie Bush 4-for-98, .041

» DeSean Jackson 4-for-117, .034

» Steve Smith 4-for-178, .022

» Jacoby Jones 4-for-216, .019

 

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