Special teams provide final punch for Bengals

The NFL likes to tout how close its competition is week-in, week-out. Through Week 6, the league announced in a press release last week, 65 of its games had a margin of seven points or less in the fourth quarter. That’s the most ever through the first six weeks of play.
The Bengals could be the NFL’s poster kids for tight games.

All seven of their games this season have been within seven points at one point or another in the fourth quarter.

“We have to be prepared to play 60 minutes,” said head coach Marvin Lewis after Sunday’s 27-24 win at Detroit. “Up or down, we have to play 60 minutes.”

It’s more than just good fortune that they’re 5-2 and in first place in the AFC North by two games at this point of the season. While Andy Dalton and the offense has found itself the last couple of games and the defense has been a constant at the top of the league rankings, the special teams have provided more than Mike Nugent’s two game-winning field goals.

In a game Sunday between two teams evenly matched, the Bengals got a blocked field goal from defensive end Carlos Dunlap that led to a short field and touchdown right before halftime and continued stellar punting from Kevin Huber. Nugent’s shot at the game-winning 54-yarder came after Lions’ rookie punter Sam Martin rushed a kick with 34 seconds remaining, shanking it for just 28 yards to the Cincinnati 49.

As Lions’ safety Glover Quin put it: “You don’t want the game to end on them making a 50-yard field goal. We would love to make that kick. It was a heavyweight battle, a heavyweight fight and we took some punches, they took some punches.

“They just got the last punch in.”

The Bengals’ special teams were that last punch.

Huber pinned the Lions at their own 6-yard line with 1:43 remaining with a 45-yard punt. Long snapper Clark Harris got to the ball first, down it after Huber was able get some backspin off the spiral kick. It’s the third straight week Huber has come up with a significant punt late in game that helped give the Bengals a field position advantage they were able to capitalize upon.

He had a 57-yard punt against New England in the driving rain that pushed Tom Brady and the Patriots back into their own territory. He pinned the Bills back deep in overtime last week.

“My main thing this year is I wanted to focus on executing the punts to what we need versus trying to get the big stat,” said Huber. “I think that’s worked out pretty well so far in terms of going into a situation and knowing I need a punt to get it down to the 10-yard, 15-yard line. That’s better than the 20, that’s better than a touchback.”

Huber’s gross average of 44.7 yards/punt is only tied for 21st in the league but his net average of 41.7 is 11th best. He’s tied for sixth with 13 punts inside the 20-yard line and he’s had just one touchback in 33 punts. He led the NFL last season with 11 punts downed inside the 5-yard line. That’s part of the reason the Bengals signed him to a five-year contract extension last offseason.

“We’re asking Kevin to do special things with the ball, and he’s delivering,” said Lewis on Monday. “He doesn’t get the opportunity like some guys to stand back there and boom the football. We want that ball put in certain spots all the time and that’s important that we do that.”

Nugent had missed wide left from 47 yards in the second quarter, kicking in the same direction as he lined up for the 54-yarder but made a 48-yarder in the third quarter going the opposite way. His career long is 55 yards but the indoor conditions at Ford Field make for about as optimum circumstances as possible. This kick split the uprights as the clock hit zeros.

It was his seventh career game-winning kick to come within the final two minutes of regulation or overtime. His 43-yard overtime kick in Buffalo last week also followed an earlier miss.

“I think in my past years I would’ve (thought about a miss) but I’ve been eliminating that,” said Nugent. “Learn at the time, see what you did wrong right away and then forget about it because it has nothing to do with the kick at the end of the game. I’ve done a better job of that.”

Dunlap’s block of David Akers’ 34-yard attempt proved to be a 10-point swing. The Lions were poised to take a 13-7 lead before Dunlap got his first career block, with a big assist from James Harrison who freed up a lane for Dunlap to rush. Reggie Nelson recovered the loose ball and the Bengals eventually got possession at the Detroit 40 with 2:17 left in the half. The offense converted the short field into seven points and the lead on Dalton’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones.
“The real difference in the game was Carlos blocking that field goal right before halftime,” said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. “It swung the game 10 points. That’s the biggest difference in the game right there.”