“Clyde has gotten a lot better since the season began. He was a little tentative to start off but he’s got his feet wet and is hitting the holes well,” Bowles said. “He’s using his speed and trusting his blocks so he’s gotten better that way. Bess has been a punt returner since he came in. He’s shifty. He can make people miss. He has sure hands. Last week (at Buffalo) he had like six returns for over 100 yards. He had three 20-yard returns. He’s making those punt seams and he’s making the field shorter for us.”
Even though he doesn’t possess the breakaway speed of a Devin Hester or a Patrick Petersen, Bess’ excellent hands and quickness in routinely making the first guy miss have paid dividends. He is currently ranked fifth in the National Football League among punt returners with at least 20 returns with an average of 11.9 yards per return.
There aren’t too many types of punts Bess won’t try to field because he is that confident in his catching ability and his ability to stay on his feet. Some coaches might get nervous when they see their punt returner come running up like a center fielder trying to catch a short punt because of the fumble risk, but Bowles does not because he knows Bess is trying to make sure the ball doesn’t hit the turf.
“My mindset is that anytime I get a chance to do something with the ball it’s an opportunity, especially to make a big play for your team,” said Bess, whose longest return has been 25 yards. “Those are game changing plays and I’m aware of it, I study it and I’m ready when the opportunity comes. You’re already going forward on those short ones so it’s kind of already making you continue to go forward.”
Bess admits he likes to avoid making the fair catch signal as often as possible. He saves those for the really high kicks where it’s obvious the coverage guys are going to be on top of him before the ball even reaches his hands.
“I love returning. When you’re catching the ball it just takes you back to elementary school when you were out there running around and playing ‘Kill The Carrier.’ I grew up on that too so I’m just making the most of the opportunity and making it happen.”
As for Gates, he had to refresh himself with the nuances of returning kickoffs after being drafted by Miami in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of Abilene Christian. He returned kicks as a freshman and sophomore but not his last two years and His natural speed lends itself to returning kicks. But not only is everyone faster in the NFL, the rules are a bit different.
This year the league moved the kickoff spot up five yards from the 30-yardline to the 35, which means more kickoffs are going deep into the end zone and forcing returners to either take more touchbacks or gamble by taking it out.
“That’s just part of it so you’ve just got to make the right decision,” said Gates, who had a 77-yard return against the Oakland Raiders on December 4th. “Whether it’s five yards deep or six or seven yards deep you’ve just got to make the right decision and go hard whenever you get the opportunity. I credit the guys up front blocking for me for the most part because that’s not an easy block for those guys and I credit the coach (Darren Rizzi) for the scheme that we’re putting in because he’s putting us in a good situation to make a big play.”
Gates feels like he’s getting closer and closer to breaking that big return all the way to the other end zone for a touchdown. Last week at New England he looked to be on his way when he found a seam after New England’s first score but Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski tripped him up after a 38-yard return.
“It’s going to be a good feeling when it does happen,” Gates said. “I’ve got something for you when I do.”