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Special-teams play sparks Browns

Posted Oct 10, 2013

The Cleveland Browns' special-teams units have been among the best in the AFC, and have served as catalysts for the team during its three-game winning streak.

At the beginning of the offseason, Chris Tabor, the special-teams coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, did not know who would punt, kick or return footballs for the team when it stepped onto the field for the regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 8.

And in the days leading up to that opening game against the Dolphins, Tabor and the Browns had to find a kicker after Shayne Graham was released and Brandon Bogotay was placed on injured reserve and lost for the season.

But over the last three weeks, the Browns have gone on a winning streak, and the special teams have played a big role in those victories. A fake punt that led to a field goal and a fake field goal that went for a touchdown helped the Browns earn a 31-27 win over the Minnesota Vikings, and Travis Benjamin’s 79-yard punt return for a touchdown sparked the team in its 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills last Thursday.

“We’re a third of the game, and it’s our job to win the field-position battle and help our offense and help our defense,” Tabor said. “That’s what we’re in charge of doing, and we’ve got to make sure that every week, we go in with that attack mentality, and that those are the things we’re going to accomplish.

“It’s a credit to the guys that they kept chopping wood and taking it one play at a time, and then, we got going. We’re in an area where we believe we can provide a spark. We just have to do our job, and if we do our job, then, we have a chance to make something happen.”

Through the first five games of the season, the Browns rank in the AFC’s top 10 defensively in punt-return average, kickoff-return average, net punting average, and field-goal percentage, and have the second-best punt-return average on offense.

But in Tabor’s mind, there is no fun in analyzing what has previously happened, but rather, in the tests that lie ahead, including Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at FirstEnergy Stadium.

“Every week, it’s new challenges, and the guys have stepped up to the challenges the last three weeks,” Tabor said. “We’ve still got a long ways to go, but the good news is, there’s stuff that we can build upon and make it better. Each week is a new week, and we’ve just got to stay focused in on that. If we can do that, then, at the end, hopefully, we can be a good unit.

“The production we’ve been getting from our punter (Spencer Lanning) and kicker (Billy Cundiff) have been good. I’m real pleased with that, and our long-snapper (Christian Yount) has been as steady of a guy that there is. We’re pleased with the battery of guys that are playing, but it’s still ongoing. We’re always fluid in our room, and we’ve got to get more guys ready and get better at some of the deficiency that we have.”

The Browns’ opponents are averaging 22.1 yards per kickoff return and 8.4 yards per punt return, which both rank sixth in the AFC. And to Tabor, effectively limiting the returns of the opponents is all about the players handling their responsibilities and focusing on doing their jobs well.

“We never talk about running down and making collisions,” Tabor said. “We always talk about giving yourself an opportunity to go down and make a play, and those things take place by setting up different guys, knowing your opponent, what moves that we can use on them so I’m not just running down.

“We want to be able to weave and move and use our speed and athletic ability to create some space and give them an opportunity to come through and make plays.”

BUILDING CHEMISTRY

The Browns signed Cundiff mere days before the season opener, and despite not having the offseason or training camp to work with the team, he has proven to be a leader in the special-teams room, as well as on the field.

Cundiff, an eight-year veteran, has converted eight of his 10 field-goal attempts, including both of his kicks from at least 50 yards, in addition to helping Lanning learn the professional game and how to read certain things during the course of play.

“It’s been great,” Tabor said of Cundiff’s relationship with Lanning. “To have a nice mix between a younger guy and a guy with more experience, I think those things are great. They work well together, and I think that’s the other key element, how they work together, how they talk to each other and help each other throughout the course of the game and the week. That’s been real beneficial, and so far, it’s paid off.”

SEEING THE GAME

In five games with the Browns, Lanning has done a bit of everything on special teams.

He has punted 29 times for 1,285 yards, an average of 44.3 yards per punt, and had 11 attempts land inside the 20-yard line of the opponents. He also kicked an extra point in the fourth quarter of the Browns’ victory over Minnesota when Cundiff suffered an injury. It was also during that Minnesota game where Lanning fielded a snap on a field-goal attempt and instead of placing down the hold, tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron.

Following the win over the Vikings, Lanning earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

“I’m real pleased with his development,” Tabor said. “He’s been the Jack-of-all-trades. One of his strengths is, he never gets too high or never gets too low. He just plays within himself, and he studies tape.

“He understands more than just punting. He understands what we’re trying to do to the returner with regard to our coverage schemes, how that applies and where we need to put the football. Him understanding the whole picture, I think that helps.”