Not so special: Mike Priefer’s unit struggling early in season

Browns special teams coordinator laments big returns, need for kicking change

CLEVELAND, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – Historically, the Browns have been one of the league’s best on special teams.

To say this year, it’s a work in progress, would be kind.

“We're very aware we have to do better there,” head coach Kevin Stefanski said during his daily Zoom video conference Thursday afternoon. “There are things we can do schematically, and personnel-wise. We just need to do it.”

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer’s unit is giving up big returns, having mental lapses, missing blocks and they have already had to make a kicking change – but we’re just 2 games into the season.

“We have our challenges but like anything else, I’ve always had the philosophy that you just go back to work,” Priefer said Thursday morning during a Zoom video conference with reporters. “You keep working. You get the guys that you have, get them better. They’ve had a great attitude. They’ve had a good week of practice thus far this week and we plan on getting after Washington and although they’re very good, we plan on having our best game of the season.”

The Browns rank 32nd in kickoff coverage this season giving up an average of 37.8 yards per return after allowing kickoff returns of 38, 42 and 45 yards in 2 games.

Opponents are also averaging 13.0 yards per punt return this season.

“We haven’t covered kickoffs with the same speed and tenacity that we did a year ago,” Priefer said. “We’ve lost leverage where we didn’t lose leverage last year. We haven’t talked well like we tackled well a year ago. Does that mean we need some reps under our belt before we get going? That’s no excuse. Everybody’s in the same boat – no one had preseason games this year, so we’ll never use that as an excuse.”

In Week 1 the Browns botched a fake punt due to poor blocking that resulted in a fumble. They also committed a pair of facemask penalties to improve field position for the Ravens.

Opponents have registered touchbacks on all 13 kickoffs this season while JoJo Natson has been able to return just 2 punts for 14 yards.

“We just have to play better. We have to play faster. We have to play more aggressive,” Priefer said. “We have to keep our hands. We have to keep leverage. We’ve gotta do the little things better than we’ve obviously been doing thus far in order to be a weapon for this football team.”

The Browns cut kicker Austin Seibert, selected in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, after he missed a PAT and 41-yard field goal against Baltimore.

“I was very disappointed,” Priefer said. “We had to make the change. It was a change that was necessary because it was more mental than anything with Austin. I think Austin’s still an NFL kicker. I think he’ll kick in this league for a long time if he can get the mental part of it figured out because he’s very, very talented.”

Seibert made 25 of 29 field goals and 30 of 35 extra points as a rookie.

Cody Parkey, signed to the practice squad before the opener, was elevated to replace Seibert, who was claimed by the Bengals. Parkey was a perfect 5-of-5 on PATs and 3 of his 6 kickoffs went for touchbacks, 1 went out of bounds.

“He made his PATs,” Priefer said. “That was a start. That was huge. Could he kick off better? Sure. He had a couple of nice ones. The one out of bounds was unacceptable. We’ll never accept that. That was a mistake.
Other than that, I thought he kicked off okay, good enough for us to win with.”

Parkey has bounced around over his 7-year career, including spending the 2016 season with the Browns.

“The thing about Cody is he’s very smooth, he’s very accurate,” Priefer said. “He’s a veteran guy that’s been there before. That’s why we brought him in on the practice squad to give us that stability.”

Featured Image Photo Credit: Matt Starkey-Cleveland Browns