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Priefer: Browns have to pin Patriots deep, can't give them any 'freebies'

We've spent much of the week lauding the Patriots for their offensive and defensive prowess, two phases of the game in which they lead the league in at least one statistical category.  

But nearly two weeks after the Browns had a punt blocked, why not spend a bit of time on special teams? 

Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Thursday his unit has spent plenty of time on correcting blocking for punts, the culprit for the affected kick against the Seattle Seahawks. Though not an official turnover, a blocked punt can affect a game as significantly as a fumble or interception. He wants nothing but consistency out of his group, a standard that became a defining expectation for him during his days at the Naval Academy.

While there are differences between these Browns and Patriots — in record, statistical standing and Super Bowl victories in the last 20 years — they share at least one commonality. Both teams feature a coach who learned valuable lessons from Steve Belichick.

Belichick, the father of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, was a longtime coach at the Naval Academy. Belichick coached on the Navy football staff when Priefer was there as a player, and Priefer served under him as a graduate assistant and enjoyed the mentorship of Steve Belichick.

"He really understood the game. We used to talk complementary football," Priefer said. "We used to just talk about little things, about players and how to motivate players. He was quite the motivator. I remember when I was a Midshipman and we would do the physical readiness test. Back then, it was pull-ups, sit-ups and I think a mile or a mile and a half run, which is the one that killed me. I remember doing pull-ups and he is counting them and I think that I am cranking them out. I look down, I do like four and he goes, 'Oh, that is one.' I am looking down and I am like, 'Coach, I did four.' He goes, 'You did not go all the way down or all the way up' or whatever it was. 

"He was a tough, hard-nosed guy. He was a great military and Navy veteran, served in World War II. He was just a good man. His friendship meant a lot to me."

Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Patriots Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey

How might that apply Sunday? Much of that work has already been accomplished in Priefer's efforts to turn around a special teams unit that was seen as a significant weakness in previous seasons and has since become rather reliable. Perhaps it can only improve in the department of efficiency, a term that was repeated by each of the Browns' coordinators Thursday.

The Patriots are the embodiment of efficiency in professional football, limiting mistakes on both sides of the ball while feasting on their opponents' miscues, which comes as a product of the discipline instilled in Belichick by his father. Disciplined football teams usually win. That also extends to special teams, where the Browns can't afford to have a punt blocked and also can't just aim for a mistake-free day. They'll have to shoot higher because they're facing a team that can make a difference in special teams. 

No team in the NFL has received more attention for "ace special teamers" than the Patriots in recent years. Two names immediately come to mind: Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner, players who have carved out lasting careers by being excellent special teamers. Both are still on New England's roster as we near Sunday and one, Ebner, is returning after missing a couple of games due to injury.

Their value, whether it's a timely block on a kick return or a proper lane fill on kick coverage, is what elevates the Patriots from a team with an acceptable special teams unit to an influential unit.

The consequences of not doing this could seem minuscule in the moment, but monumental afterward. Giving Tom Brady a short field just adds to the difficulty of the task for the Browns' defense. 

"We have to make sure that they go the long haul," Priefer said. "We can't give them any freebies. We can't give them the ball at the 40-yard line because he turns it into a touchdown like that. We have to pin them deep at every opportunity, and that is going to be our goal." 

The good news is the Browns are armed with a punter in Jamie Gillan who has an incredible leg and the capability to send a punt 70 yards deep at any moment. Gillan, the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September, has forced 10 fair catches and allowed just five returns in six games. He's also dropped 16 of his 28 punts inside the 20, good for the third-best rate in the NFL at 57 percent.

So while punts and kicks might go overlooked as the space in time between television timeouts, they're significant, especially against the efficient teams that rarely make mistakes. The margin for error is much smaller. 

The winning formula, then, must be made of confidence and aggression. Go out and make a play.

"When you look at the tape and you know how well they are coached and how well their special teams coordinator coaches their guys and the emphasis that they put on it – I know that (head coach) Freddie (Kitchens) has done a great with that is emphasizing special teams here, as well and he has given me the opportunity and the time to get our guys prepared – it is a challenge because of how they do not make mistakes," Priefer said. "It is a challenge because you have to go out there and take the fight to them. You have to go out and make plays against them. You can't worry about something bad happening. You can't worry about a penalty. You can't worry about them rushing the punt. You know they are going to rush the punt. You know they are going to play hard.  

"We are not going to get a lot of calls of penalties on them because they do not get penalized because they play with great technique and great fundamentals. That is going to be our challenge. Coach Belichick obviously is in charge of that whole thing, but his special teams coaches do a great job, the veteran special teams players do a great job and that is what that challenge is this week."