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Change is coming to the Browns on special teams

Coordinator Mike Priefer is not pleased with the return game and coverage units through the season’s first five games.

Indianapolis Colts v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns have had a rocky existence with the special teams play through the first five weeks of the 2020 season.

On the plus side, placekicker Cody Parkey has been perfect so far as he has converted all seven of his field goal attempts and all 17 of his extra points. And while maybe not as dynamic as last season, punter Jamie Gillan is still averaging 44.9 yards per punt, just 1.3 yards shy of his average as a rookie.

It is everywhere else that the Browns are struggling, however, as they enter Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked:

  • 30th with an average of 34.6 yards allowed per kickoff return
  • 20th with an average of 21.1 yards gained per kickoff return
  • 28th with 88 yards allowed on punt returns
  • 18th with an average of 7.2 yards gained on punt returns

The situation reached critical mass, if you will, last Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts when the Browns allowed a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to Isaiah Rodgers.

On Thursday, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer vowed that there will be changes starting this Sunday, according to clevelandbrowns.com:

“We are going to find the right match of guys. We have talked about it before, we were the No. 1 or No. 2 kickoff team in the National Football League last year, and we do not all of a sudden get bad overnight. There are some things we are doing or personnel we are putting out there that are not good enough, and we are going to make those changes.”

The Browns opened the season with JoJo Natson handling the return duties, but Natson was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury against Washington in Week 3.

Rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones has handled the return duties the past two games, and while he has been OK, Priefer wants more from his return game, according to The Beacon Journal’s Nate Ulrich:

“He does need to play faster. He needs to return faster. I tell him he’s got to cut it loose. Believe in his talent, believe in his ability. He’s a confident young man, but he’s a cerebral young man. He needs to see it. He needs to experience it. He’s never been a kickoff returner before. … I’m confident in Donovan, and I think he’s only going to get better.”

As for the coverage units, while Priefer did not tip his hand, he did say that linebacker Mack Wilson, safety Andrew Sendejo and defensive end Porter Gustin, among others, have expressed an interest in helping out where needed on special teams.

Priefer wants to avoid a repeat of Rodgers’ return, which followed a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Ronnie Harrison Jr., and gave the Colts new life, Priefer told the team’s website:

“Our kickoff team is our momentum team. We just had a pick-six and the crowd is into it and you are up by 17 points. That is the momentum team. That is what is so disappointing is we let them back in the game. That could have been a completely different outcome.”

The Browns have the kicking portion of special teams in place, now they just need to get the return game and coverage teams on solid ground.

And if they continue to struggle, expect Priefer to keep working at it until he finds the answer.