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Strong special teams, creative 'D' keeping Browns competitive

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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening

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Posted Oct. 25, 2010 @ 7:32 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

The Browns may have only two wins this season, but they have been tough to shake in their five losses. And in their victory at New Orleans Sunday, they showed why their style of play can be so vexing for their opponents.

The Browns hit Saints QB Drew Brees nine times and sacked him three times, and Brees threw four interceptions. On special teams, the Browns again stood out in multiple areas, highlighted by P Reggie Hodges' 68-yard run on a well-executed fake punt. The offense, while accumulating just 210 yards, didn't commit a turnover.

The PFW spin

Here's a closer look at the elements that have kept the 2-5 Browns competitive:

— They are sound in the kicking game. The Browns have little margin for error, and if they weren't strong on special teams, they might not have two wins. Assistant head coach/special-teams coordinator Brad Seely has done an outstanding job with this group. The Browns' coverage teams are excellent. They are allowing just 3.5 yards per punt return, second-lowest in the NFL (the league average is 9.3 yards per return) and surrendering 18.6 yards per kickoff return (NFL average: 23.2), fifth-best in the league. Hodges' net average of 40.2 yards per punt is fourth in the NFL. Though RS-WR Joshua Cribbs hasn't been quite the force on kickoffs and punts that he was in past seasons, he still has a big impact on the game, and his cross-field lateral to CB Eric Wright keyed a combined 69-yard return.

— The defense gives up a lot of yards, but it can create confusion. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan isn't afraid to blitz and mix up defensive looks for the opposition. Sometimes this approach doesn't work nearly as well as planned, but against New Orleans, Cleveland's defense had the upper hand. Note that while Cleveland allowed 394 yards vs. the Saints, it allowed a respectable 5.1 yards per play. Browns OLB Scott Fujita had an outstanding game with 11 tackles, one sack and one interception and helped his teammates get a handle on New Orleans' offense.

— The offense can play a safe, grind-it-out style on offense. After New Orleans had cut the Browns' lead to 20-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Browns embarked on a 13-play, 50-yard drive, taking 7:34 off the clock and ending in PK Phil Dawson's 48-yard field goal with 6:00 left. RB Peyton Hillis had rushes of nine, 12 and 12 yards on the drive and added a 13-yard catch. With a good offensive line and the strong, athletic, 250-pound Hillis in the backfield, the Browns' ground game can be an edge for them, particularly as the weather turns colder and/or other circumstances dictate a run-heavy approach.

— They have been well-prepared to begin every game this season. Cleveland has outscored opponents 81-60 in the first half in 2010. Give head coach Eric Mangini and his coaching staff credit: The Browns, through their early-game play, have given themselves a chance to feel at halftime as though they had a legitimate chance to win in all seven regular-season contests.

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