It just feels different after a win, doesn’t it?
The questions certainly reflect it in this week’s edition of the Browns Mailbag. We had more than enough options, but we settled on five.
How have the Browns improved on special teams? -- Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia
Where to start?
I threw out this stat on Twitter on Thursday, but I’ll repeat it in this space for those who don’t indulge on that particular social platform. Through four games this season, the Browns have surrendered a total of just 19 punt return yards. That’s really good, and a big reason why rookie punter Jamie Gillan was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month on Thursday. For some perspective, the Browns surrendered a 22-yard return in the first quarter of their season opener last year.
Here are some more numbers: Cleveland ranks fourth in the NFL in kick return defense (18.3 yards per return) and 10th in punt return defense (4.8 yards per return). Gillan is tied for second in the NFL with 11 punts placed inside the 20-yard line and leads the league with 10 fair catches. On the flip side, the Browns are third in punt return average (13.2 yards) and 24th on kick returns (20.1 yards). The latter has been a point of frustration for special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who said it’s been a big point of emphasis in practice this week.
“When you play fast and when you play physical on the other phases, you expect to do the same thing on kickoff return and really on every phase,” Priefer said. “That has kind of been our mantra all year long. It was a little disappointing in that regard, but our guys played hard and we did some good things. We have to keep getting better every week.”
The penalties haven’t completely gone away, but the Browns have been more disciplined across the board. Rookie kicker Austin Seibert hasn’t missed a field goal and hasn’t missed, in general, since his first extra-point attempt of the year. All in all, it’s been a huge area of improvement, and it’s been a great source for plenty of hidden yardage.
What has happened to Genard Avery?? He showed such promise last season and I haven't seen him even once this year. I know he was even listed inactive in Week 4. -- Rocky W., Dayton
Avery has been active once this season (Week 3) and he saw the field for two snaps and was not used on special teams. Through four games, the Browns have primarily played with just two linebackers, so that’s part of the explanation. The other is Cleveland has a pretty solid rotation going on the defensive line with Chris Smith and Chad Thomas serving as the backup ends.
Priefer noticed an uptick in Seibert’s confidence entering Week 2 against the Jets, and it’s definitely shown. He’s 7-for-7 on field goals and has made every extra point since missing his first attempt of the season. This was the kicker Cleveland saw nailing big kick after big kick during his four years at Oklahoma.
When discussing Seibert’s missed extra point, Priefer said Seibert had poor technique that differed from what he’d seen the previous three to four weeks. That’s obviously been corrected, and Seibert remains one of just six kickers in the league who has yet to miss a field goal attempt.
I’ll keep this brief, but here are my four -- er, six.
LB Joe Schobert - He leads the team in tackles and ranks fifth in the NFL. He’s had his hands on a bunch of the team’s turnovers and is thriving in yet another different defensive system. He’s been very, very good.
DT Larry Ogunjobi - It’s easy to get lost in the hype when you play defense on a team with the kind of offensive stars Cleveland has and play in the same position group as Myles Garrett, but Ogunjobi is off to a big start in 2019. He has three sacks and has been a constant source of disruption.
CBs Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie - Both of the veterans have more than just filled in for injured starters Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams. They’ve thrived and been a major reason why the Browns have continued to be so tough on defense the past few weeks. It’s an absolute luxury to have veterans like this in backup roles.
Gunners KhaDarel Hodge and Tavierre Thomas - The Browns have two dynamite special teams players in Hodge and Thomas, and both have played a big part in the unit’s overall improvements. Priefer was amazed the Rams let go of Hodge before the season and campaigned for Thomas, who missed most of the preseason with an injury, to make the 53-man roster.
Conditioning has been a big focus for Antonio Callaway over the past four weeks, not only because he hasn’t been playing, but also because he’s working back from a high ankle sprain. The Browns will monitor Callaway closely during his debut Monday against the 49ers.
“Callaway looks good,” Kitchens said. “He needs to continue to try and build his endurance. There is a difference between endurance and shape. He is in good shape, but endurance is play after play after play after play and your need endurance more than anything in the game of football.”