BEREA, Ohio — The recent release of long snapper Ryan Pontbriand is just a byproduct of how the Browns special teams has regressed this season. Over the years, when coaches have talked about how important special teams are, usually draws a yawn from fans. Coaches have explained in number of plays, special teams are actually one third of the game.
However, this year, the Browns have lost directly or indirectly as a result of special team play in at least three games. The most obvious was the flubbed snap against the Rams. Last week, against the Bengals, there is no guarantee that Phil Dawson would've made the 54-yard field goal to give the Browns a lead with under two minutes to play, but Dawson had made 7-of-7 from over 50 yards prior to that attempt.
Earlier in the season, on Oct. 16, special teams played a big role in the loss to the Raiders. Two special team breakdowns contributed to the 24-17 loss. Jacoby Ford returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown to give the Raiders' a 14-7 lead after the Browns had tied the game.
Special teams could've cost the Browns a win in a 6-3 victory over the Seahawks as two breakdowns caused two field goal attempts to be blocked.
Pat Shurmur was asked about the mediocre play of the special teams this season.
"I think we can get better," he said.
Eric Mangini seemed to emphasize special teams more as the Browns consistently had players on the roster that played little more than on core special teams such as Nick Sorenson or Blake Constanzo. Brad Seely was considered one of the top special team coaches in the NFL and his absence has been felt as he has the 49ers special teams among the tops in the league. Chris Tabor is in his first year as a special teams coach after being an assistant with the Bears.
The Browns did lose punter Reggie Hodges to a ruptured Achilles in training camp and then replacement Richmond McGee failed before Brad Maynard stepped in to stem the tide. However, Maynard is currently 30th in the NFL with a 41.7 average.
However, the return game that was a staple in previous years has been pedestrian for most of the 2011 season. Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs has returned 26 punts for 233 yards for a 9.0 average with no touchdowns. He did have a long return of 43 yards. Cribbs is ranked 22nd in the NFL with a 9.0 average.
Cribbs has returned 25 kickoffs for 670 yards for a 26.6 average with a long of 63 yards, including no touchdowns. When Cribbs has had returns it has generally been a spark to the offense. His 51-yard kickoff return in the season opener set up the Browns first touchdown of the game. Cribbs is eighth in kickoff returns with a 26.8 average.
In a win over the Colts, Cribbs sparked two touchdown drives with a 52-yard kickoff return and a 43-yard punt return. Cribbs has surpassed the 10,000-yard mark for career kick and punt return yards, but he hasn't returned either for a score since he did so twice against the Chiefs on Dec. 20, 2009. His last punt return for a score was on Sept. 13, 2009 against the Vikings. He has 10 career returns for scores, including eight on kickoffs.
Cribbs expressed frustration after the Bengals' game, in part because of the lack of big plays.
Shurmur said there are factors contributing to the lack of big returns.
"I would imagine the way and where the ball is being kicked from has some effect," he said. "You're probably seeing more tackles inside the 20 then you ever have. But the ball is five yards closer to being out of play. We'll have a better idea of that after this season."
Injury List Growing: At this point in the season, the injury lists seem to get longer and longer. Shurmur said that DB Mike Adams (shoulder), RB Montario Hardesty (calf) being held out of practice, as well as LB Quinton Spears (hamstring) and DB T.J. Ward (foot).
Shurmur said that Hardesty hasn't had a re-lapse with is calf injury, but wants him to get a little more rest. Hardesty was on the side during the portion available to the media.
"We're letting him rest to jump start his healing," he said. "I don't think he re-injured himself."
Shurmur said that Ward will do some running to test his foot.
RB Peyton Hillis was full go at practice on Wednesday.
"Scott meant a lot to this team from an experience standpoint and play," Shurmur said.
LB Chris Gocong will likely move to the strong side and LB Kaluka Maiava would move into the weak side starting role, but he is limited from a knee injury he sustained against Cincinnati. If he can't play, most likely LB Titus Brown would step in.
The Browns promoted LB Benjamin Jacobs and DL Brian Sanford to the active roster from the practice squad to replace Fujita and Stephens.
"We moved guys up from practice squad," Shurmur said. "We'll have to move some guys around and sometimes role players will have to step up."
Stephens had replaced DL Jayme Mitchell as the starter at defensive end, but Mitchell would step back into that role, if he's healthy. Mitchell has been dealing with an ankle injury.
"Mitchell should be out (at practice)," Shurmur said. "If he can't go, we'll do something by committee."
Pontbriand Out: The Browns waived LS Ryan Pontbriand on Tuesday and replaced him with rookie LS Christian Yount.
Shurmur said he doesn't blame Pontbriand entirely for the missed field goals, but said he felt a change needed to be made.
"We made a change at long snapper," Shurmur said. "I mentioned this to the team. We made a personnel move. He's not the reason we lost games. I don't like doing it, but when you look at everything we felt we needed to make a move."
Pontbriand was in his ninth season with the Browns after being drafted in the fifth-round by Butch Davis in 2003. He had been to the Pro Bowl after the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
He said after the Bengals game that he was ‘in a slump', but Shurmur said "We can't slump. We can't be in slumps," on Monday.
"We tried numerous things," Shurmur said. "There's examples in all sports where players are good for so long. We just made a change."
Shurmur was asked if he was sending a message to other players that they have to be productive.
"I don't want to send a message through the media," he said. "We're trying to do the best we can for the team."
Yount was an undrafted rookie from UCLA who was signed by the Buccaneers and was the team's snapper for seven games until their starting snapper recovered from an injury. He wears No. 57.