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Thread: Special teams sea change

  1. #1

    Special teams sea change

    Special teams sea change

    Posted May 2, 2018

    Darrin Simmons is looking at a major kick to his playbook.

    The Bengals are bracing for major revisions in their special teams playbook as Darrin Simmons emerged from the NFL’s safety summit Wednesday
    pleased with how the league responded to the coaches’ proposal to make the kickoff safer with massive changes.

    Things are moving faster than Clayton Fejedelem, the Bengals’ special teams Pro Bowl alternate last season with 15 tackles. The owners could
    approve the new kickoff at their meeting later this month.

    “We recognized we need to make the play safer,” said Simmons, calling the proposal merely preliminary. “We’re trying to take the steps as coaches to
    do that. I think the league will respond to that well. We had very good feedback in the meeting. I thought it was very, very productive. It was a good

    Simmons, the club’s special teams coordinator, made the trip to New York along with eight other teams’ coaches that proposed the biggest changes
    ever to one of football’s oldest and recognizable plays. It not only transforms how the play is blocked and covered, but also which players are doing it.

    “We’ve made incremental changes down through the years to the play, but now we’ve made them all at once,” Simmons said. “Schemes and
    concepts will change.”

    Simmons says the proposal puts more emphasis on speed rather than size:

    _Changing the alignment of the return team. Only three players can be deep, including the returner. The eight players lined up at their 40-yard-line
    can’t leave until the ball is kicked.

    “You’re going to need players that can handle the ball if there are only three of them,” said Simmons of the new back line.

    _There is no two-man wedge blocking. Usually five have dropped back and, in the past, the Bengals have protected their returners with wedges from
    big men like defensive end Jordan Willis, right tackle Jake Fisher and a rookie three technique named Geno Atkins.

    “With no wedges, there’s going to be more of a need for players that are athletic enough to avoid blocks on the first and second levels,” Simmons
    said. “You don’t need as much size to take on the wedges.”

    _No running start for the kicking team. Cover players must line up no deeper than one yard behind the restraining line, which would be the 34 of the
    cover team.

    “Our contention is it would give the return team a chance to get back and get set,” Simmons said. “Maybe the cover players don’t have the same
    speed with the hope of reducing the violent collisions.”

    Assistant Brayden Coombs calls the proposal "a hybrid," of punt and kick.

    Back at Paul Brown Stadium special teams assistant Brayden Coombs wonders when the drastic changes hit since the Bengals have just one teams
    period each in the 10 OTAs and three rookie mini-camp practices during the spring. He sees the kickoff now as “a hybrid,” play where the ball is
    kicked from the tee but the coverage and return schemes resemble punts.

    “I think I’m looking at my July,” Coombs said Wednesday with a smile as he anticipated what the new rule does to changing the playbook. “When you
    go through a complete rule change like this there are going to be sections of it that have to be re-done from scratch. The biggest thing is just the
    unknown. We may all know the rules, but there’s room for different interpretations within the rules. So you don’t know what teams are going to do
    against you.”

    For instance, will teams try to pop up kicks in the air into what would be a vast a no man’s land inside the 40? Will teams have to be more defensive
    returning the ball? Coombs thinks the biggest change is the formation.

    “On offense, it would be like changing the rules for eligibility,” Coombs said. “If you change the formation drastically, you’re changing the way the
    game is played. That’s what is going to make it an entirely different play.”

    Simmons emphasizes this is all “very preliminary … fluid,” so it’s a bit early to wonder if it could mean a change in the composition of rosters. Maybe
    one more linebacker or safety or receiver and one fewer lineman? But then, it’s only one play.

    “Potentially that could come into play based on the formation of that one play,” Simmons said of the roster makeup. “The other side of that, too, I think
    is that it also affects your cover players. There’s a need for more speed. You’re in more of an avoidance mode since there are no more wedges.”

    Although it is a major overhaul, Simmons has lived through the tweaks of the play in his 16 seasons in charge of the Bengals’ kicking game during the
    shift to safety. Once upon a time special teams were glorified as the NFL’s “Suicide Squads.” No more.

    Simmons has seen the kickoff moved from the 30 to the 35 and the touchback moved out to the 25 from the 20. Not so very long ago players on the
    kick team could line up anywhere they wanted. Then, they had to line up on least the 30. Now they’re at the 34. A few years ago they wiped out the
    three-man wedge.

    And while Simmons says it would be a challenge to implement such significant changes in mid-swim, he also says it’s a relatively modest proposal.

    “It does represent doing things gradually,” Simmons said. “We talked about other steps; even more drastic steps we felt would reduce (collisions). But
    maybe we need to let the play evolve a little bit, too. Don’t go from A to Z. Let’s go from A to M. And let it develop over the next couple of years. This
    is the first step.”

  2. #2
    On your Mark: Walton brings special energy

    Posted May 4, 2018

    Mark Walton became a hard man to catch for the Hurricanes.

    The Cop first met The Kid nearly 15 years ago when he walked off Miami’s mean streets into Liberty City Elementary, a couple of go routes from
    where Chad Johnson grew up and told the principal he was looking for the “baddest,” eight-year-old in the building.

    Sean Horne, the resource officer for Northwestern Senior High School and its feeder elementary schools, doubled as the football coach for the
    smallest pounds at the Gwen Cherry Boys and Girls Club down the street and his seven-year-olds had just lost the Super Bowl.

    “If I can help him become a better man, he can probably become a good football player. Discipline breeds success,” says The Cop, now 51 and a
    detective, as he remembers Dr. Linda Whye telling him he didn’t have to track down the notorious one because he was standing right there behind
    her desk.

    “If you get kids involved in group activities, if there’s no father in the home, that coach becomes that father of that kid,” Horne says. “It might be for
    just a few hours at practice, but he gets to see a positive man, a working man that works 9-5. He’s a leader among boys who can teach young boys
    how to become better men, better kids, and do what’s right in order to succeed in life.”

    The Cop asked him to sit down next to him and The Kid, who had so much energy the teachers couldn’t handle Mark Walton in the big classes, told
    him he lived with his mom, two older brothers, two older sisters and a younger sister.

    “I told him if he was going to play for me I’d have to drive him home in the police car and introduce myself to his mom and that I would drive him to
    and from practices,” Horne says. “He never took his eyes off me. That’s the thing that impressed me.”

    They were still looking at each other on Draft Day last Saturday when Walton’s cell phone rang. Horne glimpsed the same energy rampaging through
    him as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was telling him they were about to take him in the fourth round.

    “He’s got this big vein in his neck. I’ve seen it when he’s working out,” The Cop says. “It was almost like ‘The Incredible Hulk.’ It was getting ready to
    bust out when he was talking to Coach Lewis.”

    The Cop has seen a lot of sad stories. But he can’t think of anyone that has overcome more pain and loss than The Kid. That vein, he figures, is
    connected to one of the biggest hearts he knows.

    Walton is opening a new chapter with daughter Ma’Lani and girl friend Jasmin Thompson,

    “The first practice we had him,” Horne says, “we put him at outside linebacker. The first play was a quick slant and he made a one-handed
    interception and returned it all the way. We couldn’t put him at cornerback because he was too aggressive. We couldn’t put him at quarterback
    because he’d just run with it when he dropped back. So we made him a running back because somebody had to hand the ball to him … A lot of
    energy, he just needed some focus, some direction.”

    Walton played for Horne for four seasons and they usually won the big one. The Cop never remembers losing to the team that Chad Johnson
    supported, the Liberty City Optimists. Eventually The Kid went downtown to the U to become one of the more exciting juggernauts in a long line of
    Miami’s running backs royalty despite being all of 5-9.

    Energy? Walton is still charged up nearly a week after the draft and rookie minicamp still a week away. It should be no surprise he’ll be on the field
    after ankle surgery limited him to four games and 63 touches his junior season.

    Certainly not to Miami head coach Mark Richt and his staff. They love him. A No. 1 running back who not only didn’t mind throwing his body around
    on special teams, he was their MVP in the kick game. And they had no problem telling scouts no one on their team immersed themselves in the game
    and loved it more than Walton.

    “I think I’m at my peak. I’m at an all-time high,” Walton says. “Whether people think I’m back or not, I feel I’m way ahead of where I was before. I’m
    way more flexible, my hips are more flexible. The way I’ve been running I feel great. I feel like I’m a whole new Walton. Same thing. But 2.0. Yeah,
    new and improved. I’ve doing things I’ve never done before. I’m a on a diet … Pilates. I’m walking out ready to go.”

    The old Walton still has The Cop biting his lip with pride. When Horne looks at Walton he sees a son. When Walton talks about Horne, he sounds like
    a son. There have been other kids, but The Kid was different.

    At roughly the same time The Cop drove him to that first practice for the Gwen Cherry Bulls, Walton’s father was murdered in a domestic violence
    incident and Horne’s wife had a miscarriage. Walton’s father wasn’t living with his family, but he had been in his son’s life deep enough for The Kid to
    know he worked three jobs.

    Walton with his once and future coach, Detective Sean Horne.

    “He clung to me and clung to him,” Horne says. “I guess we needed each other. Kind of like a what-might-have-been.

    They clung together into eighth grade with The Cop giving him a ride to and from school and practice every day, almost always in a police car. His
    mother, grandmother, and The Cop formed an impressive, efficient car pool.

    They clung together through the eighth grade, about the time Walton’s 18-year-old brother was shot to death by a police officer and Mark’s mother,
    Kim Rogers, trying to make ends meet as a hotel maid, reluctantly but gratefully met her son’s request to move in with Horne and his family north in
    Miami Gardens.

    The Cop was still driving him. Until Walton got his license and he let him drive his truck.

    “I basically took him as my own and he accepted,” The Cop says. “The hardest thing for these young guys nowadays is to really accept what they’re
    being told.”

    But Kim Rogers wasn’t that far away.

    “She still did everything for me. Bought me clothes and all that stuff,” says Walton, who would bring back plates for Horne’s two children and his wife
    from Kim’s Sunday dinners. “But I think she wanted me to get away from all that. Coach Horne was someone she knew and trusted.”

    They clung together when Walton’s grandmother died about the time he chose Miami over Auburn, Florida State, Tennessee and South Carolina.
    Then The Cop was called to the hospital a year ago in February when Kim had a stroke and they needed each other when Walton couldn’t quite
    grasp his mother would never recover. When she died two weeks later at just 45, Horne knew what was next because he saw it when his father died.

    “He came to track practice that day crying. I told him he didn’t have to run if he wanted to sit out,” Horne says. “He said, ‘No, I want to run.’ He ran
    that whole day without any problems. And he ran hard that day and during the track meet that weekend.”

    That’s how he runs now. Horne says it is channeling the pain. Walton calls it “running angry. Running with a purpose. That’s where I take out my
    frustration. On the field.” When Kim went, it would have broken anybody. Maybe even Horne, who sees death every day as a homicide detective in
    Miami Gardens.

    “I don’t know if I could have handled that much,” The Cops says of Kim’s death. “It was difficult for him. Almost surreal. Almost unbelievable. Coach
    Richt and the coaches gave him some time off, but even during that time off he was trying to get back to the team because that was the way for him
    to get the anger out.”

    Walton showed off his healthy ankle at the combine.

    Walton has been 21 for all of a month and what The Cop began telling him all those years ago has gradually became fact. He had to get ready to be
    ‘The Man.’ The man of the family. You could see it Draft Day when Horne moved the get together from his house to Walton’s off-campus apartment
    because he felt it should be a family affair of aunts and uncles and cousins.

    And a one-year-old daughter. Ma’Lani. And her mother, Jasmin Thompson, Walton’s girlfriend of six years.

    “I’ve kind of looked at myself as the man of the family since I was nine,” Walton says. “Back then I wanted to take the pressure off (his mother).

    “I look at my daughter and I want to give her all the things I didn’t have.”

    So that’s why he runs the way he runs. He’s watched tape of Giovani Bernard, the Bengals’ back with his dimensions and admires the many moves
    he can see in his own game. But his favorite back in the league is the 6-1, 220-pound Adrian Peterson.

    “I just like the way he runs hard,” says the little back with the big-back mentality. “You’ve got to deliver the blow first. You’ve got the ball and they’re
    trying to knock your head off. You can’t let them do it.”

    The Cop listens to some of the things The Kid says now and he starts hearing himself. Walton became involved in the U’s community give-backs and
    became a bit of a fan favorite. Once after a practice early last season a youngster told him he was her favorite player and with her family watching he
    went back into the locker room to get a Sharpie and he signed his locker name plate from the Russell Athletic Bowl.

    “When he got out there with the kids, you could see his energy just (being) interjected into those kids,” Horne says.

    Horne says this week Walton planned to stop by his outfit and give back to the kids at an event with the chief of police and the Miami Gardens Police
    Department’s community enrichment team. The organization Walton supports is called the Chiefs and they come from one of four fields in the

    “(The Bengals) are getting a winner,” Horne says. “That burst of energy he’ll have will be contagious because guys will want to be on that level when
    it comes to working.”

    Nearly 15 years later, The Cop knows why he went into the school when he met The Kid. But after that and they're still clinging?

    “It was fate,” Horne says. “Fate we were supposed to meet that day.”


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