CINCINNATI -- As more healthy players finally return to their defensive backfield, the Cincinnati Bengals are starting to see a sort of domino effect play out on the rest of the team.
It's one they are happy to see.
Now that Dre Kirkpatrick and Reggie Nelson have come back from injuries, and Leon Hall and Brandon Ghee appear poised this weekend to do the same, the Bengals are in the enviable position of having a perfectly healthy secondary. By extension, it means they ought to have a fully healthy group of special teams units, too. As strange as it might sound to some, the amount of injuries in one area of a team very much coincides with the amount of injuries on another.
"We've got a lot of moving parts," special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said of his unit. "Hopefully now with the injuries we're starting to get through, guys can settle in. Through the first five games, we were very unsettled as far as personnel."
That's one big reason why he believes Cincinnati wasn't as good as it could be on punt returns through the first quarter of the season. After witnessing a couple of flashes on one of the two returns the Bengals did have against New England last weekend, Simmons said this week that he believed his now more stable return group was getting "close" to being exactly where it should.
Adam Jones, the veteran cornerback who also returns punts for the Bengals, missed two games on special teams because of a dearth of players at his defensive position. Forced into making him a defensive starter, Cincinnati couldn't run the risk of getting Jones hurt on the punt return unit. If he did get injured trying to return punts, the Bengals would not only have been without a punt returner, they would have been down a much-needed defensive player.
Sunday's game against the Patriots was Jones' first as a punt returner after the two-game layoff. Even though he only had two returns totaling 10 yards, it was the second one, on which he gained all 10 of his yards, that really caught Simmons' attention.
"On his first one, he didn't have much of a chance," Simmons said. "It was a good job by them. They did a good job of identifying some things. The second one, we had a chance to get out of it."
The Bengals were steps away from converting a long return on Jones' second return, Simmons said.
"We've just got to play it better," Simmons said. "We've got to get another block, and he's got to make one more cut."
Jones, the player also known by his nickname "Pacman," wasn't so sure about the block, but he knew if he could have been a little quicker making a decision as to which hole he wanted to sprint through, he could have ripped off a big return.
"I just have to stick it," Jones said. "Hopefully I'll get better this week, get a little bit of room and see if I can wiggle through there."
He displayed significant wiggle in the season opener when he broke off a 50-yard punt return that had the potential to set the Bengals up with great field position for a score. The play was nullified, though, when officials penalized Cedric Peerman for an illegal block below the waist.
Jones hasn't had a return as long since. Overall this season, he has four returns for 29 yards. Again, Simmons says a big part of that is because the Bengals haven't had much continuity on their special teams units as roles have shifted on the various coverage and return teams because of injuries. Another factor is the lack of opportunities Jones has had because of those injuries.
Another lesser, but still important, factor has to do with Jones himself.
"He's got so much confidence in himself, and that's the good and the bad," Simmons said. "In his mind, he's going to score every time."
Because of that thought process, Jones has a tendency to over-think his returns, Simmons said. At times, he'll try to dance a little too much or not fire through his best hole quick enough because he thinks he sees another.
"You've got to be decisive, and once he's decisive, he's got to go," Simmons said. "That's the good part and the bad part about him. The good part about that is what you saw in the Chicago game. He can make a ton of cuts that nobody in the league can make.
"The time he makes one too many cuts, he gets tackled."
At earlier points in his career, Jones wasn't getting tackled much. Twice since 2005, he has averaged more than 10 yards a return. In 2006, arguably his best all-around season, he took back three for touchdowns. In his career, he has five punt returns for touchdowns.
"The more opportunities he gets, the better he'll get," Simmons said. "The return game is a lot about timing. It's getting to this spot at this time when this guy gets there, and it's not quite there yet."
But it's close.