Donovan Peoples-Jones had an inkling that he was close to a big punt return before he pulled one off Sunday in Houston.
That belief started a week earlier against the Buccaneers, when Peoples-Jones returned five punts for a career-high 75 yards and looked confident and quick dashing around defenders and trusting his blockers to clear a path. He identified running lanes faster and felt more certain in his instincts when he spotted a hole.
"That was the first time on a punt return where I saw the lane like that," Peoples-Jones said Wednesday. "That was exciting for me."
A week later, Peoples-Jones turned that excitement into the biggest return the Browns have had in seven years.
Trusting his instincts and zipping past defenders again, Peoples-Jones broke free for a 76-yard punt return touchdown against the Texans for the first punt return touchdown the Browns have had since 2015. He was just the second player in the NFL this year to score a touchdown off a punt return this year.
The NFL took notice of Peoples-Jones' play by naming him the Special Teams Player of the Week — a reward that not only signifies the importance of his one play, but how much growth Peoples-Jones has shown as a returner in his third season.
Three years ago as a rookie, Peoples-Jones fielded 18 punts but only averaged 4.3 yards per return. His longest return that year was his first career return for 13 yards, and he never fully showed the spark special teams coordinator Mike Priefer believed he could bring with his speed, agility and instincts the Browns believed were better than his sixth-round draft selection suggested.
Patience — and a little bit of emphasis on trusting the eyes and running straight rather than laterally to avoid blockers — steered Peoples-Jones in the right direction.
"We've been trying to get him to run downhill since he has been here," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said on Dec. 1. "He's not a quick twitch guy that's going to make people miss right at the point of attack, but he's very athletic, and once he gets going, he has some pretty good speed."
Peoples-Jones was running 20.7 mph, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, after he escaped the first couple waves of defenders and stuck with the plan the special teams crew had for the game: run to the right.
"That was a plan — to go to the right side of the field," he said. "Everyone in the meeting room from the beginning of the week was locked in on what the goal was, and we went into the game and executed that goal."
For Peoples-Jones, it was also executing on a belief that a big return was coming soon.
Njoku eager to help Watson
After missing one game due to a knee injury, TE David Njoku expects to be back in action next Sunday against the Bengals — and is eager to start catching passes from QB Deshaun Watson.
Njoku was disappointed that he missed Watson's debut last Sunday but is looking forward to picking up on the good chemistry the two established during training camp. Njoku, who could still build a career-best season despite missing three games with injuries, will be a prime weapon that could help Watson improve from a rusty debut.
"How excited?" Njoku said with a smile. "Very excited.
"He's progressing every day. That's all we really ask for him is to progress every day. We're all excited for his progression."
Browns will see 'how far' Ragland looks with defense
The Browns placed LB Sione Takitaki on injured reserve Wednesday due to his torn ACL and signed LB Reggie Ragland to bolster the depth of the position, which has been hit with three total season-ending injuries to plays this season. Takitaki joined Jacob Phillips (pectoral) and Anthony Walker (quad) on injured reserve.
Ragland, a second-round pick by the Bills in 2016, was signed to the active roster from the Raiders' practice squad. He's played 75 career games with 47 starts and started all 17 games with the Giants last season, amassing 67 tackles.
"Obviously, Reggie just got here so we will see where he is from a mental standpoint," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He's spending a lot of extra time with (linebackers) Coach (Jason) Tarver and (run game coordinator) Coach (Ben) Bloom to get up to speed with what we are doing defensively. We will see how far along he comes this week."