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Seahawks vs. Bengals: Special Teams & Field Position Preview

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You may have heard that Seattle is traveling to Cincinnati this weekend for a difficult inter-conference game. To beat the Bengals, the Seahawks will need to dominate the "little things" (TM).

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Problem: The Bengals are Playing Good Football

After about four games I think the season-long statistics start to become meaningful. (Even then, as we know, schedules can be difficult to account for. So, you still have to take the stats with a grain of salt.) That said, on a per drive basis, the Bengals are playing some very good football, lest you thought there was anything flukish about their 4-0 record. Seattle has been all of boom or bust in its two wins and two losses. We've seen moments of good play on offense, but not enough.

Drive stats courtesy of Football Outsiders.

Off. Yds/Drive Off. Pts/Drive Off. Drive Success* Def. Yds/Drive Def. Pts/Drive Def. Drive Success Off. LOS/Drive Off. TO/Drive Def. LOS/Drive Def. TO/Drive
Seahawks 32.46 (12th) 1.59 (23rd) .681 (20th) 27.02 (7th) 1.37  (3rd) .621 (3rd) 26.71 (20th) .122 (13th) 24.22  (6th) .122 (17th)
Bengals 36.05 (8th)

2.75  (5th)

.748  (6th) 33.00 (19th) 1.71  (8th) .684 (9th) 33.14 (3rd) .091 (8th) 22.93 (3rd)

.143  (12th)

*Drive success rate measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown. Take-a-knee drives at the end of a half are discarded.

Just a quick glance at the table shows that Cincinnati's playing well on both sides of the ball. Even the less-than-impressive defensive yards allowed per drive has the feel of a team that's trading yards for time off the clock. For my analysis of special teams I want to draw your attention to the defensive drive success rate.

The Bengals have been especially good thus far at pinning opposing offenses back against their own goal. The Bengals defense is walking onto the field with opponents backed up, on average, to the 23 yard line. This kind of field position advantage typically indicates outstanding special teams. Interestingly though, the Bengals do not rate well in Football Outsiders' special teams measure (21st overall). Cincinnati's field goal kicking looks to be driving its low rating. The team seems solid in other areas.

Seattle's best hope for winning this game almost certainly involves winning the field position game (unless Cincinnati is inclined to give us a bunch of turnovers, which I for one would welcome). Seattle's top-rated special teams unit looks like a good matchup versus Cincinnati, but let's dig a bit deeper into each Bengals game.

Bengals Kickoff vs. Seahawks Kickoff Return

Seahawks fans are well acquainted with one Mr. Tyler Lockett's exploits: 30 yard kickoff return average, with five of his nine kickoff returns over 20 yards. Cincinnati's kicker, longtime Charger Mike Nugent, to his credit, has kicked off a ton and that unit hasn't given up much. Against OAK, five touchbacks on six kickoffs, and a 33 yard return. Against SD, three returns on three kickoffs, but for only 26, 21, and 24 yards. Against BAL, three touchbacks on four kickoffs, and a 26 yard return. Against KC, five kickoffs to Knile Davis, a pretty good returner, and none more than 25 yards.

The Seahawks probably shouldn't expect to make a living returning kickoffs versus the Bengals. Tyler Lockett looks like he may be an exceptional return talent, but we hope he only gets one return at the start of the second half.

Bengals Punt vs. Seahawks Punt Return

Cincinnati's punt team has been pretty good. If there is a strength on strength matchup that Seattle really needs to win in this game it's this one. The Seahawks must create field position when forcing the Bengals to punt. This is not an offensive line we want to operate out of the shadow of its own goal line.

Getting field position in the punt return game, however, will be tough sledding. Currently, Lockett is ranked 15th among returners with an 11.3 yard average, but right now there is no minimum number of returns to be on the leader board. (Richard Sherman is the current NFL leader with a 64 yard average, based on his single return against the Bears.) Lockett has 12 punt returns, which is among the most in the NFL.

In some ways, we really don't know how good Cincinnati's coverage teams are. The Bengals' offense is so efficient the team has not punted more than three times in any game; just twice in each of their last two games. Obviously, 12s expect the Seahawks defense to force a few more punts. The available data suggests that the Bengals' punt coverage is a decent unit, but not unbeatable. Punter Kevin Huber is ranked 5th in net average at 43.1. Of the six punts that have been returned (of 14 punts), the average just over 10 yards per return.

Seahawks Kickoff vs. Bengals Kickoff Return

Of the many things for which the Bengals can rightly be praised, returns (to this point) have not been among them. Seattle's kickoff coverage has been a net positive per Football Outsiders where Cincinnati's kickoff returns have been a slight negative. That said, the Bengals undoubtedly have talented returners. We know what Adam Jones has been in the past. We haven't seen that kind of explosiveness to date.

This is a matchup that Seattle should win.

Seahawks Punt vs. Bengals Punt Return

This could be a troubling matchup for Seattle. The Bengals have been, to this point, a slight negative in punt returns. But, Seattle's punt coverage has been the worst part of the special teams. This is the most resistible force meets movable object special teams matchup.

Bengals FG/PAT

Mike Nugent is 3-5, and has had a PAT blocked, which seems to be driving the unit's low rating on Football Outsiders. I don't read too terribly much into the misses. I'm not sure what his range is at this point, but historically he's been reasonably good out to the mid-40 yard area.

Seahawks FG/PAT

Hauschka is among the best (and most trustworthy) kickers in the league.