Here is my five-point breakdown of the Browns’ special teams halfway through the season:
>>The ability to overcome Travis Benjamin’s season-ending knee injury. The list of obstacles the Browns have overcome to remain in contention in AFC North is long. And somewhere near the top is the loss of one of the best punt returners in the NFL. There is no way for the Browns to replace Benjamin’s incredible speed and elusiveness that make him a constant threat to go the distance. The best they can hope for is to have players who are at least reliable when it comes to fielding punts. That means catching the ball and knowing the right time to call for a fair catch or to avoid doing so. With the help of superb blocking they’ve had since the start of the season, the Browns are hoping to get sound punt returns from recently acquired Armanti Edwards, who catches the ball well and is capable of making would-be tacklers miss.
>>No more discussion about the departures of Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs. When the Browns parted ways with Dawson, one of the top kickers in the league, and Cribbs, who had been a dangerous return specialist, there was a fair amount backlash from fans and media. It was understandable. Both were extremely popular with fans, and on a team that generated so little offense, they represented the only dependable sources of points and electrifying plays. But the Browns’ hierarchy was confident in its ability to sufficiently replace both without causing much, if any, damage to the team. That is exactly what has happened. The fact Dawson now kicks for the San Francisco 49ers and Cribbs plays for the New York Jets is pretty much a non-issue among even the Browns’ harshest critics. The team’s efforts to field an offense that relies less on its kicker are clearly more appreciated now, especially in light of the emergence of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron as playmakers.
>>Chris Tabor has done an excellent coaching job. Since the start of the offseason, most of the focus on the Browns’ coaching staff has obviously been directed at the hires of offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton. But there was another decision by Rob Chudzinski that was every bit as important: retaining Tabor, the Browns’ special-teams coordinator, and his assistant, Shawn Mennenga, from the previous coaching staff. They are exceptionally good at what they do. Tabor has a knack for connecting with the many young, fringe-of-the-roster types of players who mostly comprise the special-teams units. He is meticulous in choreographing their movements and designing effective returns and coverages.
>>The “Billy and Spencer Show” has been a big hit so far. The considerable hand-wringing over the fact the Browns had to replace not one, but both of their kickers proved all for naught. Not that it looked all that promising in the beginning. Through the offseason and training camp, it appeared the kicker would be rookie Brandon Bogotay or veteran Shayne Graham. However, by the end of the preseason, the Browns released both of them. And only days before the start of the regular season, they signed veteran Billy Cundiff, who has been dependable on field goals (connecting on 13 of 15, with one block) and has excelled at booming long kickoffs. Of his 35 kickoffs (excluding on-side attempts), 24 have resulted in touchbacks while 31 have resulted in the opposition starting at or inside the 20-yard line. Spencer Lanning won a preseason battle with T.J. Conley to become the Browns’ punter, and he, too, has done a nice job. On his 50 punts, he has a net average of 39.5 yards, putting 16 inside the 20-yard line (with only three touchbacks) and registering 15 fair catches.
>>Solid kickoff coverage. The Browns are getting some solid kickoff coverage from a group of young, hungry players who have good speed, athleticism and are highly aggressive. They rank 10th in the league in that category, thanks in no small part to the contributions of rookie Armonty Bryant, who also has made his presence felt as a defensive lineman. The Browns need to make improvements in punt coverage, where they are tied for 21st in the NFL, but do have some solid players in that area in Eric Martin, Paul Hazel, Johnson Bademosi, and Fozzy Whittaker.
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