Browns-Lions: Special Teams Critical

The Browns special teams are among the best in the league, but have taken a lot of recent hits...

The offense is a total mess.

The defense, despite losing its top two tacklers, is hanging by a thread but continues to fight.

And now the special teams, which all along had continued to play extremely well, being a shining light in this otherwise horrific season, are starting to take some real hits. That adds yet another worry to embattled Browns head coach Eric Mangini as he gets his team ready to play the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field.

The loss on Wednesday of Dave Zastudil for the rest of the season due to a knee injury that traces back to training camp, affects two positions. He's one of the best punters in the NFL and is the Browns all-time leader in that department. In addition, he's the holder for kicker Phil Dawson.

Along with that, Joshua Cribbs, the Browns' best coverage man and arguably the top punt and kickoff returner in team history, resumed practice on Thursday and Friday after getting walloped by on the final play as the club played hot potato with the ball in the 16-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. He was carried off the field on a stretcher and rushed to Cleveland Clinic, where he was checked out and released early Tuesday morning. Despite reports that he had suffered a concussion, he was deemed to be OK – other than being sore and tired – and, according to Mangini, should play against the Lions.

Cribbs said he will continue to play with his hard-nosed, no-holds-barred approach – the one that has placed him fourth in the NFL in punt return average this year at 13.6 yards, and 10th in kickoff return average at 27.1, with a TD each way -- but you have to wonder. He did not suffer a concussion, but he was knocked woozy. It was easily the hardest hit he has received in his five seasons with the Browns.

So with the jury still out on Cribbs and how effective he will be going forward, with Zastudil being replaced by Reggie Hodges, whose average of 38.6 yards on nine kicks Monday was 6.1 yards less than Zastudil's average for the season, and with Dawson, the seventh-most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, still trying to get used to a new holder in Hodges, the special teams could become average. Hodges punted the ball high enough on Monday, allowing the coverage teams to get into position to hold the Ravens to an average of only 1.7 yards on three returns, but just not long enough.

All that does not bode well for a team that can't score points (the Browns have league-lows of 78 points and seven touchdowns, two of which were provided by Cribbs on returns), and whose struggling offense desperately needs the good field position that special teams can provide.

In addition, Dawson missed five games with a calf injury on his kicking (right) leg and may not be back to 100 percent yet. He's hit all four of his field-goal tries this year and, with the Browns' inability to get touchdowns, will need to continue to be dead-on accurate for the team to score – if, that is, it can ever get into field-goal range. The Browns never advanced inside the Baltimore 45 on Monday night.

The offense isn't likely to get any better the rest of the season. The defense, though, could get worse if it continues to stay on the field for long periods of time and become fatigued because of the offense's inability to move the chains and milk the clock.

Special teams? The future of what they may – or may not – be able to do remains to be seen. But with the way the Browns' luck is going this year, the production on Sunday could be a lot less than the club is used to getting on those units.

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