Bengals get timely replacement in Powell

CINCINNATI -- At long last, the list of players in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room who I previously covered has doubled in size.

We've now gone from one (Michael Johnson) to two (Shawn Powell).

That's obviously a personal win, and one probably only understood by sports writers who have made similar moves to new beats. More important than any of that, though, for the Bengals, it's also a win. A very big one.

Christmas came early for Cincinnati on Tuesday when it signed the free-agent punter Powell to take over for Kevin Huber. After taking a vicious shot from Pittsburgh return team blocker Terence Garvin, Huber suffered a season-ending injury. The helmet-to-face mask hit sent Huber flying, and caused him to break his jaw and crack vertebrae in his back.

Huber was formally placed on injured reserve Tuesday and will have oral surgery Friday as he begins the recovery process. According to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Huber shouldn't experience any effects of the injury in the long term. He should be able to return by the start of next season.

This late in the season, most teams are well set in their special teams and punting ways. They know precisely what they want their punter to do and their punter knows exactly where to put the ball in each situation. His coverage unit also typically has a feel for where it is that he wants to kick, his hang time and an understanding of how long it can take to get down the field.

That's why the timing of Huber's injury couldn't be worse for the Bengals. As they get set for a playoff push, they need as much familiarity as they can muster across the final weeks of the season.

Powell will provide a semblance of that.

In the 6-foot-4, 243-pound kicker, the Bengals not only get a timely replacement, but they also pick up a player who matches much of what coach Marvin Lewis described in his weekly news conference that preceded the news about Powell's signing.

Lewis said the Bengals were about to sign a punter who: understood special teams coach Darrin Simmons' directional punting philosophy, and could also hold on field goals and point-after attempts. Before his injury, Huber was the team's holder on those plays. After Huber's injury, starting quarterback Andy Dalton had to take over and hold for kicker Mike Nugent's point-after attempts. Nugent ended up filling Huber's duties at the punter, averaging 40 net yards on his two punts. Those relief efforts by Nugent were enough to get him named an honorable mention selection to ESPN Stats & Info's weekly Punter of the Week awards, compiled by Mark Simon.

Like I mentioned before, I covered Powell before arriving on the Bengals beat earlier this year. Before he was signed by the Buffalo Bills following the 2012 draft, Powell played at Florida State. His last year at FSU was my first on the beat there.

When it comes to directional punting, that's certainly something he knows how to do, even as eccentric as his directional style may be to NFL punting traditionalists. Since college, Powell has worked the rugby style of kicking into his repertoire. Back then, he was pretty good at it.

"Coach Darrin told us [the five punters who tried out Tuesday] when we went out there that we're strictly a directional team," Powell said. "That actually benefits me being with Bruce DeHaven my rookie year in Buffalo. He wanted it out of bounds or on the sideline."

Powell, who beat out Chris Kluwe and Drew Butler among others, said he honed his rugby style of punting in college in an effort to send "line-drive missiles" that will hit the ground and roll down the sidelines. He figured the harder he hit the ball toward the corners, the more difficult it was for a returner to decide whether or not he wanted to pick up the ball and go, or to let it go out of bounds. That's typically where having a coverage team full of fast, athletic players would help.

The Bengals certainly have that type of crew. Coupled with Huber's high hang time, his propensity for kicking long, and the Bengals' quick cover team, Cincinnati had the league's fifth-best net punting average across the first 14 weeks of the season. Before Sunday's game at Pittsburgh, the Bengals had been averaging 41.64 net yards per punt. All of that said, though, the second-year punter didn't do much of the rugby kick while in Buffalo parts of the last two seasons. It's not promised that he'll do them that often in Cincinnati, either.

Hang time -- on his non-rugby style punts -- is something Powell has been working a lot on the last two months since his Oct. 4 release from the Bills. He also has been working on the mental side of punting. His goal has been to avoid letting one bad kick turn into another and another and another.

"One thing I learned is: 'You're only as good as your last punt,'" Powell said. "I'm just teaching myself that if you have a bad punt, let's get it over with. Go out the next time and have a good punt.

"I don't like being on the outside looking in. I like being on the inside and hopefully I finish strong for the Bengals and hopefully another opportunity will arise."

Huber's presence certainly will be missed, but the Bengals ought to quite satisfied with the replacement they signed.