The Cleveland Browns special teams have been anything but special in recent years.
But the situation might be turning around thanks to the work of running back Jerome Ford and wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in the return game.
Ford came off the injured reserve list in time for the Week 10 game against the Miami Dolphins and provided an immediate spark by returning the opening kickoff 48 yards, one of three kickoffs he returned that day for 95 total yards.
The rookie was back at it again this past week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as he returned a pair of kickoffs for 67 yards, which included a 44-yard return late in the second quarter.
With limited opportunities to handle the ball as a running back, Ford has quietly found his niche after taking on kickoff return duties following the season-ending injury to Pro Bowl returner Jakeem Grant Sr. in training camp.
On the season Ford is averaging 27.4 yards per return, which is nice as long as he remembers there is no need to take the ball out of the end zone unless he is confident he can get it past the 25-yard-line.
While the kickoff return game has been in solid hands with Ford, the punt return game has been lacking in Grant’s absence. The Browns have tried the since-released Chester Rogers and Demetric Felton to little gain, but may have landed on a solution in Peoples-Jones.
After being part of the problem as a punt returner his first two season, Peoples-Jones has embraced the role in recent weeks and had a breakout game against the Buccaneers with five returns for 75 yards, including a 29-yard that he was close to breaking for a touchdown.
Part of the improvement has been getting Peoples-Jones to get moving down the field once he catches a punt, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said on Thursday (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“We have been trying to get him to run downhill since he has been here. He is not a quick twitch guy that is going to make people miss right at the point of attack, but he is very athletic, and once he gets going, he has some pretty good speed. Donovan did a great job of hitting those seams and had a really nice day for us. The field position on Sunday was huge, as you guys know, punt and punt return especially.”
Not much has gone right for the Browns when it comes to special teams, but the work of Ford and Peoples-Jones appears to have the return game trending in the right direction.