In his 26th season as one of the NFL’s best and most durable special teams coaches, Darrin Simmons is suddenly moving around guys not even born when he broke into the league with the 1998 Ravens.
And as if they know the painstakingly detailed Simmons has no time to spare, his pair of new gunners, 24-year-old Tycen Anderson and 23-year-old Andrei Iosivas wasted little time in Sunday’s NFL debut racing down ten punts in Cleveland to the tune of a blistering and elite 21 miles per hour.
“That’s a big deal. That’s fast,” said the normally unimpressed Simmons after Wednesday’s practice.
That speed and dynamism is the foundation of Simmons’ latest rehab job, an almost annual exercise for special teams coaches. With five key players making an up-and-down pro debut in Cleveland, they are young men in a hurry and they know they have to fast forward to Sunday’s Paycor Stadium opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) because here comes that franchise where Simmons cut his pro teeth.
The big, bad Ravens coached by John Harbaugh, a Pro Football Hall of Fame caliber head coach who cut his own teeth in the NFL as a bright, young special teams coach out of the University of Cincinnati. In his 16 seasons he’s built 10 playoff teams, four AFC North champs, and a Super Bowl champion with field position as one of his guiding principles.
Simmons and Harbaugh knew each other well long before they began a series that sees its 28th game on Sunday. Simmons was one of Marvin Lewis’ first major hires in 2003 as he re-built the Bengals and he’s now Zac Taylor’s assistant head coach. Simmons bridged the transition from Lewis to Taylor that included an AFC title with four straight top ten finishes in Football Outsiders special teams rankings from 2018-21.
Last Sunday was below the standard but there were enough glimpses to see it is on the rise. He says rookie punter Brad Robbins needs to be more consistent (“Worry about what you can control”). Rookie punt returner Charlie Jones needs to be more decisive (“Get vertical).” He told Anderson he needs to corral that 4.4is 40-yard speed long enough to break down so he doesn’t miss tackles.
These guys are coming fast down the field. Robbins settled down in the rain as the game went along and had a boomer out of the end zone to offset a 22-yarder. Jones negotiated the mist and wet to catch everything his way. They gave up just a total of 15 return yards.
(By the way, Simmons thought Jones made the right call on his first NFL return, a ball he caught at the six and took to the 14: “He did the right thing catching it. A 57-yard punt with 4.2 hang time. He had plenty of room. Just get up field quicker.”)
“I thought the rookies did OK. OK,” Simmons said. “The whole group has to understand that we have to feel the flow of the game. You’re always looking to create a spark. But, at the very least, there’s always the need to make sure it’s a positive play.”
Of course, everyone knows Harbaugh is going to come after Simmons’ kids. Especially the kids.
“I expect to see everything. Everything. As a coach, that’s what I would do if I saw a rookie,” said 22-year-old safety Jordan Battle, who played the first game of his life Sunday as the quarterback of the punt team and made the tackle on his first NFL return. “I always get put in positions where I had to do tough things. The moment can’t be too big for you.”
Sunday certainly wasn’t XL for Battle. But that’s why Simmons put him in there. “We trust him with the calls. Smart kid,” says Princeton’s Iosivas, who should know.
When Simmons listened to Battle in the Bengals’ 18-minute interview at the NFL scouting combine back in March, he knew he was staring at a future NFL personal protector, the man who calls the signals on a punt. Battle played plenty of high-level special teams at Alabama, but never was he the PP. He was a tackle.
“Smart guy who sees things and can adjust,” Simmons said. “I thought he did a good job. I thought he was poised. He did a good job controlling the punt play. To punt ten times, to make ten calls, is a big deal for a rookie. I thought he did fine.”
Plus, Battle has the luxury of being tutored by safety Mike Thomas, the incumbent who has led the punt team in seven playoff games the last two seasons. He’s on the practice squad now and working daily with Battle. After watching Battle hug the line of scrimmage much of Sunday, Thomas reminded him, “Every PP needs an apex. Make sure you can see the field.”
“I thought he responded well,” Thomas said. “Look at all the different rushes he had to deal with. Ten of them and he got everybody lined up. They tested us. They got our young guys one-on-one in space. Things to clean up, but a good start.”
That’s what surprised Battle the most. How aggressive and physical the Browns were up front even in their “punt safe,” looks where they kept everybody in.
Just wait. He knows there won’t be much safe Sunday.
The Ravens have the same kind of consistent team culture as the Bengals. Chris Horton is in his fifth year as the coordinator after he worked for three years under a Simmons-like guru in Jerry Rosburg.
Six-time Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker is going to the Hall-of-Fame. Pro Bowl kick returner Devin Duvernay has two career touchdowns. They drafted Jordan Stout in the same 2022 fourth round when the Bengals eyed punters themselves. Six different punt returners have touchdowns in the last dozen seasons. In the last decade they’ve blocked 18 kicks in games they are 14-4.
The kids know Harbaugh is looking for No. 19 Sunday.
“We have to expect they’re going to throw everything at us,” Battle said.
They’re so young that Iosivas, the sixth-round wide receiver, was surprised he ended up playing his first- ever 10 official snaps at gunner after taking two or three in the preseason.
“I was glad I was able to get out there and learn on 10 full speed game-mode punts,” Iosivas said. “I wasn’t expecting it. I’m glad I got the work. It’s just about leverage. How to win when people are at different angles. What moves to use. You want those reactions to become muscle memory.”
Iosivas stayed after practice to work on the moves he got beat on in Cleveland. He’s been hearing how the Ravens are going to challenge the kids.
“I can see that. Darrin mentioned that to us,” Iosivas said. “We’re obviously very young on special teams. They’ll try to take advantage of that. We want people coming for our heads and we’re going to go out there and make plays no matter how old you are.”
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