The Bengals enter Sunday’s game against Dallas ranked No. 5 in the NFL in punt return yardage with 12.0 average, a number that, if it stands, would be the third highest in franchise history.
“Every time the ball is punted to us, we want a chance for a big play,” said special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who already has seen Jones return one 81 yards for a touchdown and another 68 yards for a near score.
And Jones has been shoestrings away from a few other game-breakers.
“There’s going to come a time where they don’t want to punt it to us,” Simmons said. “They’re going to start kicking the ball out of bounds, and that plays into our favor, too, because then it becomes about the net punt. You don’t want to punt it to us? Fine. Punt it out of bounds and we’ll take the 35-yard punt.”
Last week at San Diego the returns were consistently strong, with Jones going for 24 and 15 on his two attempts, while Tate added a 16-yarder. And while none of them resulted in points, they kept the field position tilted in the Bengals’ favor until the offense finally broke through for a game-winning drive on a short 55-yard field late in the fourth quarter.
Splitting the returns on a near 50-50 basis, Tate has 19 attempts for an 8.9-yard average, while Jones has 18 for a 15.3-yard mark, which ranks third in the NFL among players with more than two returns.
“I feel pretty good right now,” Jones said. “Comfortable. Playing with speed. If not my best year, this is one of my best years.”
Jones’ expanding role on defense — he has played at least 70 percent of the snaps the last four games after averaging just 31 percent the previous four — has prevented Simmons from using him on more returns.
“I want a guy back there who’s fresh,” Simmons said. “He wants to be back there every play, every week. But he knows when it’s best for him to be back there and when it’s best that he’s not. I’ll look at him, and he’ll already know what I’m going to say. If you just covered a deep ball, here comes Tate.”
The kick return unit has not been as explosive, ranking 19th in the league with a 23.1-yard average, but there have been flashes of late.
“It’s just a matter of time before we catch up,” said Tate, who owns 25 of the team’s 32 kick returns and is averaging 24.9 per attempt. “We’re working on that every single day, trying to get better. We’ll get there.”
If either Tate or Jones can break one more long punt return, it could be enough to make this the most successful unit in team history. Mike Martin, John Simmons and Ray Horton combined to set the record of 12.4 yards per return in 1984, while Tommy Cassanova, Lemar Parrish and Kyle Blackwood averaged 12.2 in 1974.
Of course, the consistent approach they’ve been employing of late also could be enough to surpass that 12.4 mark.
“You want to make sure you play each play efficiently,” Simmons added. “You want to just keep squeezing the opponent. When you get the chance, squeeze him and squeeze him and start tightening the noose.”