STC Mike Priefer (10.1.20)

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer:

On WR JoJo Natson’s injury and how it will impact the Browns return game: 

“I talked to JoJo. I saw him in the locker room after the game and called him Sunday night, and he was so positive and he was still holding onto hope that he would be OK and it would be a few weeks he would be out. Obviously, as you guys know, he is done for the year. My heart breaks for him. My heart breaks for me and us and our special teams because he was just starting to hit his stride, and as the weather got colder, we were going to hopefully get more opportunities, especially in the kickoff return area. That is going to hurt our football team because he has worked very, very hard to be the type of returner that we needed him to be, and obviously, his talent, his work ethic and his attitude were great. We are going to miss him, and he is going to be tough to replace.”


On potential candidates for punt and kickoff returns with Natson out for the season: 

“We have worked guys. We have worked (WR) Donovan Peoples-Jones and we have worked (RB) Dontrell (Hilliard) and (RB) D’Ernest (Johnson). (WR) Ryan (Switzer) will certainly be in play either this week or next week. It just depends on how quickly we get him ready if we need him. We have some candidates. They are all different type returns than JoJo so we have to adjust a little bit of what we do, but that is why we are paid as coaches and players, and we have to go out and do our job.”


On if he prefers to have one player handle both punt and kickoff return or one player for each: 

“We will put the best guy at either spot. If it is the same guy, it is the same guy. If not, it will be different, obviously.”


On what Peoples-Jones has shown in practice and if he is comfortable with Peoples-Jones getting his first opportunity as the returner this week, if needed:  

“Being that we are in Big Ten country and he played in the Big Ten, that is pretty high-level football. He had 70 punt returns in his career so he has had the experience and been under that kind of pressure before. Obviously, the NFL is the next step up. He has improved a lot since he has been here – tracking the ball and catching the ball. He is built like a kickoff returner, like we have mentioned before, but he has punt return experience. He is valuable in either phase.”


On the Cowboys special teams unit: 

“Their punter (Cowboys P Chris Jones) has not given up any return yards. They have only punted eight times because their offense is so good. They brought in (Cowboys K) Greg Zuerlein from the Rams. The kicker followed his coach. (Cowboys special teams coordinator) John Fassel came from the Rams, as well. Greg has had an outstanding career kickoff wise and field goal wise. They have (Cowboys WR) CeeDee Lamb as their punt returner, a big, strong, fast, dangerous dude. He is a first-round pick for reason. Their kickoff returner (Cowboys RB) Tony Pollard was one of the top returners coming out a year ago because he is fast and strong, and he has that running back vision. Then they are a fake team. John Fassel has been a fake guy his whole career with the Rams. He has already faked two punts against Atlanta earlier this year a couple weeks ago. We know every week we have our work cut out for us, I know I sound like a broken record when I say that, but every week people will attack you in different ways. They are a really good football team. They are well-coached and they play hard.”


On the decision to kick out of the end zone against Washington last week: 

“As you probably know, it was really windy on Sunday. More wind than we normally have, at least than we had in a lot of games last year. I felt like, let’s give our kicker the best chance and the best opportunity to kick the ball deep. We do not want them returning the ball from the 10, 12, 15-yard line, even though if we have good coverage, they still get the ball at the 30-35. We did not want to hurt our football team that way. It is just kind of the way the winds were. Our attitude is always going to be aggressive. We are always going to believe that our kickoff and punt teams are going to be our weapon for our defense and helping get people as far back as possible. I think the decision was made more by the wind than by who we are playing or how we have been covering.”


On P Jamie Gillan’s start to the season, given it appears not every punt has been as desired:
“No, you are right. He has been inconsistent, and I am preaching to him consistency. I was thinking about this the other day, and everybody went through it without the preseason – obviously I will never use that as an excuse – but when you have a young punter that does not have a ton of experience and especially at a high level of football, I think the preseason really would have helped him get rolling. This is Week 4. I have already talked to him about it. Obviously, it is indoors so it is a little bit better situation for him. He has to be laser focused on every rep. He has got to learn from every rep. He has to continually get better because we set the bar very high and he has set the ball the very high for himself. In order to reach that, he has to be more consistent.”


On if he hopes that with Browns defensive players returning from injury it will provide a positive impact on special teams with more personnel available, including CB Tavierre Thomas:

“It is like that every year. Tavierre has done a nice job of playing the nickel for us, and the more he plays there, we have to have somebody else fill in as a gunner, on kickoff or on any phase for that matter. He is very valuable no matter what he does because of who he is, not just because he is a good special teams player. (WR) KhaDarel Hodge, as well, as a receiver. We have had young guys fill in. They just get need more experience. It is my job to coach them up. They are young guys, but everybody has young guys. I love coaching young guys because typically they are available, they are healthy and they are energetic. We have had guys move up from the practice squad that have been on the active 53 before. Those guys are chomping at the bit to get after Dallas on Sunday. That is kind of the guys you want to coach and teach because I think we have a really good locker room in that regard.”


On Hodge earning a bigger role in the Browns offense after being a core special teams player:

“The great thing about coaching special teams – I have said this before – is that you have a lot of young guys that play defense and offense but they start out being successful on special teams. KhaDarel is just another guy that has done that, and I am really proud of him. I love the fact that he is involved in the offense. He is helping us win games. He is downfield blocking. He is catching the ball when you need him to catch the ball. He is running great routes. He has a great attitude. I think the other players and younger players kind of feed off that. They feed off the fact that Tavierre has been a great four teamer and now he has really expanded his role on defense. They feed off the fact that KhaDarel has been a great special teams player, and now he is becoming more involved in the offense and being successful in doing so. I love that. Is it harder for me? Yeah, sure because then you have to replace guys, but that is what we do. Whether a guy gets hurt or a guy is more involved on offense or defense, you have to go out and coach those guys up. If you have the right guys in the locker room, which I know that we do, then you continue to improve on special teams.”


On if it was challenging to identify core special teams players with a limited offseason and no preseason games and if he is just now starting to figure out who some of the key contributors can be:

“Yeah, a little bit. You see a little bit about what they can do athletically in the drill work. We started out slow on kickoff because we are challenging people right off the bat, and we did not pick off where we left off. That is more of me being too aggressive and not being smart enough to say, ‘Hey, let’s pull back the reins a little bit and let’s kick a couple of touchbacks. Let’s get guys used to just running down on kickoff because many of them have not done it since maybe early in college.’ Obviously our other guys have not done it since we played last December before the season started. I think a lot of guys are starting to hit their stride now, and I am excited about where we are. We are going to be aggressive. We are going to continue to set the bar high, and we hope to play well on Sunday.”

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