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Another big test awaits improving Browns' special teams


While others saw stagnation, Chris Tabor saw progress.

When others viewed Sunday's special teams performance as a breakout day for the likes of Travis Benjamin and Marlon Moore, Tabor saw a culmination of sorts after weeks of doing the right things but not getting the most ideal results.

The time to celebrate what happened against the Colts had long passed by the time Tabor, Cleveland's special teams coordinator, met with reporters Thursday. Replicating last week's performance won't be easy against the Cincinnati Bengals, who boast one of the NFL's best return men and punters, in a win-or-go-home game at FirstEnergy Stadium.

"We've got a tall task there," Tabor said. "At the same time, it'll still be about the Cleveland Browns and what we do on Sunday. We just need to continue to enhance our play, and this is a big one right here."

From a statistical standpoint, the Browns made their biggest jump last week on punt returns, as Benjamin took back four for 65 yards. Almost half came on his season-long 37-yarder, which positioned the Browns in prime field position midway through the first quarter.

Benjamin, one year removed from racking up 257 punt return yards and a touchdown, came into last week's game with just 23 return yards. As Tabor joked Thursday, "The Rabbit," as Benjamin is nicknamed, "is out of its hole."

"I've always had great confidence in him," Tabor said. "I know the struggles that we've gone through throughout the year, but at the same time, I've also experienced it with other returners, great returners. He's not playing as much on offense right now, but I can see it on the sideline. You could see it in his eyes that he was ready to go.

"Guys did a great job blocking. Trav caught the ball square, did a nice job, got vertical and hit the edge. Hopefully that continues, and to be quite honest with you, I anticipate it continuing."

Punt return yards will be hard to come by against the Bengals, whose punter, Kevin Huber, leads the NFL in average net yards (44.0). Opponents are averaging 5.1 yards per return on Huber's punts.

On the flip side, Cleveland saw the average yards it allows on punt returns drop after limiting former Brown Josh Cribbs to 4 yards on three returns just a few days after he said he hoped to jump in the Dawg Pound. Bottling up one of the best returners in recent NFL history was a true team effort, as punter Spencer Lanning dropped a number of ideally-placed punts while Moore, Eric Martin and others dealt big hits at the first opportunity.

It doesn't get any easier Sunday against Adam "Pacman" Jones, whom Tabor called "the best overall returner in the game." Jones has a career average of 10.4 yards per punt return, 26.1 on kickoffs and five touchdowns.

Jones hasn't made any of the proclamations Cribbs did, but the Browns' motivation hasn't wavered.

"I don't think it had anything to do with Josh. At the same time, I'm not going to sit here and fib to you, either. We wanted to make sure he wasn't going to jump in the Dawg Pound, and it got addressed," Tabor said. "I thought our guys did a good job with that, but Marlon is one of our leaders in that area and we feed off of his play."

Tabor expressed confidence in the one area the Browns continue to struggle on special teams: field-goal kicking.

Veteran kicker Billy Cundiff has missed a field goal in each of the last five games. His miss from 40 yards against the Colts proved costly in a game that was ultimately decided by a single point.

Coach Mike Pettine confirmed Cundiff would remain the Browns' kicker Wednesday, and Tabor followed with more insight Thursday. Tabor liked what he saw from Cundiff, who is 22-of-29 on the season, earlier in the day during a workout at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Tabor considers Cundiff 22-of-27 on the year because one of his kicks was blocked and the other was attempted from 60 yards.

"There are some other things that sometimes go into it, but if he strikes the ball the rest of the season like he did today, we'll be in great shape," Tabor said.

"He's a good kicker … At the end of the day, we're charged with when we have an opportunity to get points, we've got to get points. This weekend will be the same time of deal."

Every point matters in a game of this magnitude.

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