Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer (11.11.21)


Opening statement:

“Last week – I know it is kind of personal – I started my presser talking about Mark Zardis, my friend. He is doing much better, but unfortunately, my father-in-law went in the hospital this past week. He is a great man. I am praying for him, my mother-in-law, my wife and her family. It is crazy all of the stuff that goes on. I know a lot of our fans deal with stuff every day, and I know football is kind of a great kind of a reprieve from all that. It is real life. The bottom line, that is all that matters is family, faith and that sort of thing. Football wise, this is a big weekend for us. Try and help our fans out, go up to New England and get a win.”


On the Browns’ options as returners if RB Demetric Felton is unavailable:

“We have several guys we have worked with all summer and all season long. You guys see us do it right after stretch every day. We do punt returns and kickoff returns. We do it after practice, too – I know you guys are not there for that. We work a lot of guys every single day just for this reason. You never know in our game today, whether it is an injury, COVID-19 or whatever the case may be. Hopefully, Demetric will be there, but we are just not sure.”


On if the Browns would follow the depth chart as it relates to returners if Felton in unavailable or if it is ‘still wide open’:

“To me, it is wide open. It depends on who we are going to have on Sunday, who is going to be active and who is going to be inactive. (Head) Coach (Kevin) Stefanski and I and (Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager) Andrew Berry have been talking about that all week, and we are going to continue to talk about it. Obviously, do not want to say who it probably will be. I do not want to give New England a leg up on anything. Right now, it is wide open.”


On P Jamie Gillan’s improved performance in recent weeks:

“Last week, the first two punts were excellent. The last punt – I know the game was out of reach and they had no chance to come back under two minutes left and we were up by a bunch – you still want to go out and perform at a high level. I know he and I were both disappointed on that last punt. We did pop it loose. Taki (LB Sione Takitaki) had a nice hit and popped the ball loose. It would have been great to get a recovery there. At the end of the day, we are not going to be up by 25 points in the fourth quarter a lot. You hope you are, but that is not the NFL. We have to encourage Jamie to continue to stay focused throughout the entire game and continue to perform at a high level, no matter what the situation. That has been my message to him this week. I think he has punted better. I am proud of the way he has bounced back from some early-season struggles, but we just have to continue growing and ascending in that direction.”


On how the Browns have handled enhanced COVID-19 protocols this week:

“It was amazing. A couple of guys even said they actually like virtual meetings better – maybe they do not want to look at me and maybe they like sitting on their couch at home and doing the meetings (laughter). They have not skipped a beat. Yesterday’s meetings were good. High energy. A lot of questions. Practice yesterday, our walkthroughs and everything we did on the field, to me, was excellent, not perfect – there are a lot of things we have to get coached up to get ready for a great football team. I think they are really good on special teams, New England. At the end of the day, the energy was good, the attention was great and they did not even skip a beat. I think that starts with Kevin and the leadership in our locker room on down to everybody to the rookies and to us coaches that no matter what happens and no matter what is thrown our way, we have handled it. We did it last year. We will continue to handle it this year. Hopefully, we can get out of these intensive protocols. If we stay there, we just have to keep doing what we are doing.”


On Patriots WR Gunner Olszewski:

“Boy, is he good. He took a shot last week, and I think he was in concussion protocol this week. He is a tough kid. He is going to play. We are going to plan on him playing. He is very courageous. He comes up and he catches every punt. He does not want to fair catch anything. He is aggressive. He has good ball security. He makes the first guy miss. He tries to run people over. Even though he is not a real big guy, he plays big. I have a lot of respect for Gunner. He has done a great job and did a great job last year. He started off this year just as good or better. We have our work cut out. We have to do a great job of containing him, closing the net in coverage around him and make sure he does not get to the edge and does not hit anything downhill because he does is full speed, and he is a very aggressive, good player.”


On Takitaki’s strong coverage skills on special teams:

“That is a great question because last year, he did not do that. He was not quite as effective on kickoff coverage, not that he was not trying, but he kept getting blocked at the 25 or 30 yard line and was having trouble getting off of the blocks. My challenge to him all offseason, all training camp and during this first nine weeks of the year was, ‘You have to go. You have to make that first guy miss. A little head-and-shoulder shake.’ He is athletic enough to do that. He is fast enough to get by people. He is certainly strong enough to get off those blockers when he needs to. Taki has done a great job. (LB) Elijah Lee, (LB) Mack Wilson and our linebacker corps have done a phenomenal job. Our safeties, our corners, our receivers, running backs, fullbacks and tight ends, they have all stepped up and done a nice job for us this year in the kickoff coverage game. We need to apply what we have done on kickoff to punt coverage. There have been two decent returns against us these last two weeks that I know New England is looking at, and they are chomping at the bit. I really think we have to do a better job in punt coverage this week and on through the rest of the year.”


On Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick’s commitment to special teams and if that has had an impact on him and the NFL:

“I have always admired Coach Belichick. Obviously, his success speaks for itself. I knew his father, Steve Belichick. Steve used to coach at the Naval Academy when I went to school there. He was working in the phys-ed department and kind of was a part-time coach at the time. Even when I started my coaching career, I got very close with Coach Belichick’s dad. Just a great man, a great football coach and great person. I have always admired what Coach Bill has done and everything he has accomplished, whether it is special teams, offense or defense. The great thing he has done – he does better than most – is that his situational football is incredible. His complementary football and the emphasis he puts on complementary football is something I have tried to emulate in my career and learned it from the good coaches I have worked with and worked for. I used to work with (former college and NFL coach) Mike Sweatman. Coach Sweatman retired several years ago, and I was his assistant in New York for a couple years. I learned a lot. He worked with Coach Belichick with the Giants when they were winning Super Bowls when (Pro Football Hall of Fame) Coach (Bill) Parcels was in charge. I have learned a lot from Coach Sweatman, and a lot of what I do is based off of Coach Sweat and my father – the two biggest influences on my career special-teams wise, and a lot comes from Coach Belichick.”


On how close RB John Kelly Jr. came to blocking a punt last Sunday:

“It was a great get-off, a great want to. I put him in that spot because on the show punt return, he gives us fits. When he was on the practice squad, he was really good at rushing punts. I told him if he was my height he would have blocked the ball – he got mad at me (laughter). I am only 5’11”, and I was teasing him about being about 5’6”, but I know he is taller than that. He did a great job and put a lot of pressure on the punter there, and the guy shanked it out of bounds. We have to keep doing that to these punters because we can’t let good punters stand back there like a (Bengals P) Kevin Huber or like the young man we play this weekend (Patriots P Jake) Bailey. If they sit back there and they have time, they have a great opportunity to hit a big ball so we have to keep pressuring punters throughout the rest of the year.”


On if it different when playing a Belichick-coached team, given Belichick’s career success:

“It is just one game, and every season is different. The thing that sets him apart, like I said when I answered the question about their complementary football, is situational football, you have to be ready for everything. They do such a great job fundamentally. They have three or four really good veteran players who they rely on who are basically coaches on the field. They have a 14-year veteran in (Patriots WR) Matthew Slater. They have a 10-year veteran in (Patriots CB) Justin Bethel. They have other guys who have been in the league for a long time. (Patriots LB) Jamie Collins is playing on special teams. He does a good job on punt and punt return. They have some good veteran players who are coaches on the field, and that is what they have emphasized over the years. That is one of the reasons why they have been so successful on special teams.”


On if the Browns have to be on high alert on special teams, given the Patriots’ ability to design unique plays:

“Like most teams, we are always going to be on high alert. We probably practice getting fakes, surprise onside [kicks] and different types of situations more than a lot of teams do. Maybe that takes away some of the other stuff we can do in the return game, but I think it is important, like stopping a fake like we did against Pittsburgh, like we did last year against the Giants or whatever situation arises. We are going to be sound in everything that we do, and a lot of that is because New England is such a sound team. You have to play sound against them, and you have to play smart against them. You can be aggressive to a point, but if you are overly aggressive or if you make the mistake and you do not have guys covered on their punt team, you can give up a fake. You are absolutely right, everything we do with our gameplan is going in with the fact that we are going to be sound first and then we are going to be aggressive second.”


On the state of the return game across the NFL, given the limited number of kickoff-return and punt-return TDs this season, and if rule changes have made it nearly impossible to record special teams TDs:

“I do not think it is impossible. I think it is more difficult. A lot of teams are kicking touchbacks. They have encouraged touchbacks, even though they can get the ball at the 25-yard line after a touchback – the offense does. I think it is just sheer mentality. We have forced returns all year because we like our kickoff team, and we have an opportunity to pin people inside the 20 or force turnovers when we do that. That is kind of our mentality. A lot of people do not think that way. A lot of people are going to go ahead and kick the touchbacks, and they will take the ball at 25 for their offense. They have done a good job because I think the injuries were starting to mount, and nobody likes players getting hurt on any phase – offense, defense or special teams. That is one of the reasons why they did it. I think to keep the kickoff and kickoff return in the game, which we need to – that is an exciting play, even though it is not quite as often as an exciting play – I think they need to keep it in the game. One of the reasons they did legislate it is because of the injuries, and I think that they have done a nice job of doing that and preventing concussions.”


On the limited number of punt-return TDs across the NFL:

“What happens is that these young punters or any punter around the league are trying to force fair catches, they are kicking the ball out of bounds and they are going to give up a few yards on the net punt in order to limit your opportunities for a big return. It depends. We are playing Gunner this weekend – I do not want to say his last name – I know he is a really good returner. At the end of the day, he is a guy who you do not want to outkick your coverage, and you do not want to kick a 58-yarder with only a 4.3 hangtime. You want to try to put it higher and shorter and give up maybe a few yards on the net so you do not give him an opportunity for a big play. I think that is what a lot of teams are doing.”


On lessons the Browns can apply moving forward after dealing with adversity in recent weeks:

“The leadership in the locker room proved that they can help these young guys get through anything. They are going to do it again this week with the COVID stuff we have going on. I love the leadership in our locker room. I love the enthusiasm. I love the buy-in to what Coach Stefanski and the rest of our staff have put together. It has carried through. I am excited about this week because every week is different and every week is new. Last week, it was a different type of adversity. We got through it, and that is behind us – that is way behind now. We continue to move on. We are playing a great football team with playoff implications this weekend. We have to get after these guys if we are going to win this game. The focus has to be there, and I thought we started well yesterday, and hopefully, that will continue today.”


On if Belichick’s father Steve Belichick did 1,000 sit-ups a day when he knew him:

“No, I will tell you a quick story about him. When he was a phys-ed instructor, he was very tough. We would take what we called a physical readiness test. Back then, I think it was a mile or a mile-and-a-half run and like 100 sit-ups in two minutes, and you had to do pull-ups – I think it is push-ups now. You had to do pull-ups, and unfortunately, I was a Midshipman and a plebe freshman year, and I look down and Coach Belichick is counting for me. If you did not go all of the way down and almost hyperextend your elbows and then try to go back up, he would not count it. I am on like five or six, and I look down and he counted one of them. I said ‘Coach?’ He goes, ‘You better go all of the way up and all of the way down.” I said, ‘Coach, I have been.’ I think I separated my shoulder and I dislocated my elbow, and he still would not count them. He was a tough old guy, and I really enjoyed knowing him and getting to know him and his toughness and discipline. I learned a lot from him over the time I was around him.”


# # #


***Visit the Browns Media Center for materials provided by the Browns communications department, including media schedules, press releases, quotes, photos, media guides, rosters, depth charts and more.***