Monday, July 24, 2017

Special teams, odds & ends, fill in the blank

The most overlooked phase of football by fans is special teams. What teams do to move the football and stop the opposition from doing the same is more prominently in their focus.

Coaches, however, realize the importance of the punting and kicking games and the defensive side of that aspect of the game.

That said, we take a look at what awaits the Browns in 2017 in the form of questions seeking (and getting) answers.

What is the most important aspect of specials teams?

With punting and kickoffs, it is all about field position. Same with defending in all phases of the kicking game. Pin the opposition as deep in their territory as possible when punting and kicking; shorten the field in the return game.

And where did the Browns rank last season?

They were average in the National Football League when it came to special teams. They ranked roughly in the middle of the pack when ranking that phase of the game.

So how does that bode for this season?

It will change dramatically this season with the arrival of Jabrill Peppers, who dazzled fans at the University of Michigan the last two seasons with his skills in the return game, averaging 13 yards on punt returns and 26.8 yards on kickoffs.

How does that compare with what the Browns did last season?

Duke Johnson Jr., the primary punt returner last season, averaged 6.5 yards per return. Mario Alford averaged 8.5. The club overall averaged 6.7 yards on 30 returns.

Kickoff returns, handled mainly by Ricardo Louis, George Atkinson III and Alford, weren’t much better with a club average of 18.6 yards on 34 returns with a long of 36 yards. The Browns clearly missed Travis Benjamin in those departments.

So theoretically, it appears as though the Browns have solved their return problems with Peppers.

Theoretically yes. But this is the NFL, where there is much more emphasis on special teams than in college. That’s a challenge Peppers, who owns wonderful instincts in the return game, will face.

And if successful, how will that impact the Cleveland offense?

It all goes back to field position. A successful return game shortens the field. It is always better to begin drives as close to the opponent’s goal line as possible. Last season, the Browns began many drives after kickoff returns around their 20-yard line. The goal this season should be stretching that average start much closer to the 30 or 35.

As for punt returns, doubling last season’s average of 6.7 yards should be a minimal goal for special teams coach Chris Tabor. And with Peppers, that appears to be a goal that can achieved.

But won’t his performance as a returner be diminished somewhat by his role as the starting strong safety?

It shouldn’t. He is young and most likely eager to show the coaches how valuable he can be with his versatility. In addition, coach Hue Jackson might draw up a few plays for Peppers as a running back.

So how many touchdowns will he score?

Let’s see. How about two as a returner, another pair as the strong safety and at least one as a running back. How’s that for blatant optimism?

What about kickoffs and punts?

Britton Colquitt returns unchallenged as the punter. He figures to be less busy than last season – 83 punts and a 45.3-yard average with no blocks – if only because the offense is marginally better than last season.

The placekicker will be the winner of the Cody Parkey-Zane Gonzalez duel with the latter, a seventh-round pick in the last draft, the favorite. Parkey joined the Browns last season after an early-season injury to Patrick Murray and performed well.

But the Browns did not choose Gonzalez to just challenge Parkey. They picked him because he was college’s best kicker last season for Arizona State. He has a powerful leg that can reach the end zone with a large degree of consistency on kickoffs.

Last season’s Lou Groza Award winner – a definite plus in Cleveland – also nailed all but two of his field goal attempts, including a seven-of-nine performance beyond 50 yards. But that was in the rarefied Arizona air. He will find late fall and early winter weather much more challenging in Cleveland.

Odds and ends

If the Browns get off to a bad start again, does Jackson survive the season? It all depends on how well – or poorly – they play. Three of their first four games are against division rivals, two at home.

The key will be game five at home against the awful New York Jets, who have cleared the decks in order to beat the Browns to the top pick in the 2018 college draft. Lose that game and Jackson’s sweat glands spring into action.

Who will lead the team in receptions at the end of the season? Believe it or not, Duke Johnson Jr. It wouldn’t surprise if Jackson uses the versatile running back as a slot receiver occasionally because of his sure hands and ability to break tackles in the open field. He’s got better hands than any of the wide receivers.

Which of the two rookie defensive tackles, Caleb Brantley or Larry Ogunjobi, becomes a major contributor? Fans, of course, want both to step up and contribute. Ogunjobi, a higher draft pick than Brantley, probably will get the first shot. But Brantley stood out at a more high profile program at Florida and could surprise.

Over/under on how many sacks the team records this season. An optimist would say 40, which would be 14 more than last season. I feel somewhat optimistic with the new scheme up front and change of attitude.

Over/under on how many sacks the offensive line will surrender this season? An optimist would say 48, 18 fewer than allowed last season. I feel somewhat optimistic there, too, but only if the offensive line stays healthy.

Over/under on how many games offensive linemen Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter play. Based on their injury history. Eight would be the number. And that is being optimistic.

When will the Browns win their first game of the season? Presupposing they lose their first four games, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that is a strong possibility, sign up the Jets as the Browns’ first victim in game five.

Who benefits most from the switch to a four-man defensive front? Definitely Emmanuel Ogbah, Nate Orchard and Carl Nassib. Each excelled as down linemen in college and now each has a better chance than last season to get up close and personal with opposing quarterbacks in Gregg Williams’ scheme.

How many interceptions can Browns fans expect this season? They had 10 last season. With an improved pass rush, that figure could reach at least 16.

Fill in the blank

The team strength is . . . ostensibly the offensive line.

The team’s biggest weakness is . . . clearly the secondary.

DeShone Kizer will make his starting debut as a professional in game number . . . three in Indianapolis against the Colts.

The most important newcomer to the Browns is . . . defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The rookie who makes the biggest impact will be . . . defensive end Myles Garrett.

He will wind up with . . . sacks. Nine

The leading tackler will be . . . Tie between linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey with more than 120 each..

Jason McCourty, a career cornerback, opens the season as the starting . . . cornerback opposite Joe Haden.

Duke Johnson Jr. will have (more or fewer) touches than last season. More.

Kenny Britt will have (more or fewer) receptions than Terrelle Pryor had last season. Fewer. Pryor had 77. Britt had a career-high 68 last season. His previous best was 48.

The season-opening quarterback will be . . . Brock Osweiler.

The biggest surprise on the roster in the season opener will be  . . . Brock Osweiler.

The Browns will win . . . games this season. You fill in that blank.

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