CINCINNATI (AP) — Linebacker James Harrison was asked if he’d ever had a moment like the one safety Tony Dye was celebrating.
“Who?” Harrison said.
A reporter pointed across the locker room to a young player getting interviewed.
“No. 44?” Harrison said.
Yeah, that guy. The one that returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in his first game in the NFL, getting to be a big part of the biggest quarter in Bengals history. And just the latest out-of-the-spotlight player to contribute to Cincinnati’s rise as undisputed AFC North leader.
It’s been a special season in Cincinnati.
The Bengals (7-4) have taken control of their division by turning into a complete team this year. The defense is among the best in the league, the offense among its most diversified, and the special teams are doing things not seen in Cincinnati for many years.
“I’ve never had that happen,” Harrison said, getting back to Dye’s first-game touchdown. “I’ve never had that type of impact on a game coming out.”
And Dye isn’t alone.
Rookies galore played a big role in Cincinnati’s 41-20 victory over Cleveland on Sunday that left the Bengals with a 2½-game lead in their division heading into a bye week. They fell behind 13-0 in the first quarter, then scored a club-record 31 points in the second quarter, with special teams leading the way.
Rookie Shawn Williams, a third-round draft pick, partially blocked Spencer Lanning’s punt, which went only 9 yards and gave the Bengals possession at the Cleveland 38-yard line. That set up Andy Dalton’s touchdown pass.
Jayson DiManche, an undrafted rookie from Southern Illinois, blocked another of Lanning’s punts, and Dye returned it 24 yards for a touchdown in his first NFL game. Dye, an undrafted free agent from UCLA, missed last season with an injury and was promoted off the practice squad Saturday with safety Chris Crocker injured.
“Whenever I call a rush or call something for when they’re coming, they get the opportunity to go affect the game in a big way,” special teams coach Darrin Simmons said. “Sometimes Jayson DiManche and Shawn Williams, they don’t have that opportunity except for in that role. Their sense of urgency gets ratcheted up pretty good.”
Those two plays by low-profile rookies changed the game.
“Other guys see that and it picks them up,” Dye said. “The punt block before that by Shawn Williams was a game-changing play. When he blocked that punt, you could see the energy go up. Here comes Jayson with the second blocked punt, and I was able to pick it up and score a touchdown.
“You can feel the energy on the sideline.”
It wasn’t a fluke. The Bengals have blocked three kicks this season, the first time they’ve done that since 1991. And their special teams have been clutch in the biggest moments. Mike Nugent has two winning field goals, and punter Kevin Huber helped them hold on for a 13-6 win over New England by kicking the ball 57 yards into a storm.
Huber also had a 66-yard punt on Sunday against the Browns. He is tied for sixth in the NFL with 21 punts inside the 20-yard line.
The Bengals have put a lot of thought into special teams while building their roster the last few years.
“Some people take special teams for a joke, but over here, special teams is just as important as the starters on offense and defense,” cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones said.