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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening
Here's a closer look at a matchup to watch in Sunday's Patriots-Browns game:
Patriots special teams vs. Browns special teams
If you appreciate good special-teams play, this game is for you.
Both teams have outstanding kickoff returners. The Patriots' Brandon Tate (28.9 avg., two TDs) has had a better season than counterpart Joshua Cribbs, but Cribbs has returned more kickoffs for touchdowns than any other player in history, and he has forced some teams to alter their kickoff strategies. The Patriots' kickoff-coverage unit is surrendering six yards per return more than Cleveland (24.6 vs. 18.6).
Patriots PK Stephen Gostkowski has a strong leg and averages 68.6 yards on kickoffs with 15 touchbacks. He's 10-of-13 on field goals this season. Browns PK Phil Dawson has connected on 9-of-11 field goals. He averages 64.5 yards on his kickoffs (four touchbacks).
The Patriots and Browns have been very good covering punts, particularly Cleveland, which is allowing a paltry 3.5 yards per return. Cribbs handles punt returns for Cleveland, with Julian Edelman and Wes Welker fielding punts for New England.
Cribbs, Edelman and Welker can't expect to get too many enticing punt-return opportunities. Patriots rookie P Zoltan Mesko has made a sharp early impression. He's second in the AFC in net punting (40.6-yard average), and only 10 of his 25 punts have been returned. Browns P Reggie Hodges (40.2-yard net average) has had an NFL-high nine punts downed inside the 10.
Browns assistant head coach/special-teams coordinator Brad Seely, who spent 10 seasons as New England's special-teams coach before joining Cleveland in 2009, has done an exceptional job this season. The Browns set up field goals with a cross-field Cribbs-to-Eric Wright lateral on a punt return and a 68-yard Hodges run — an NFL record by a punter — in their upset of the Saints two weeks ago. Likewise, Patriots special-teams coach Scott O'Brien has drawn raves, too, most notably for the Pats' kicking-game tour de force in a decisive win at Miami in Week Four. Tate returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and S Patrick Chung blocked a punt and field goal, with the latter returned for a TD.