STC Mike Priefer (12.3.20)

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer:

On RB D’Ernest Johnson’s and the kickoff return team’s success on Sunday: 

“I think we had the right idea and the right scheme against those guys. They are very aggressive, and we took advantage of their aggressiveness. We blocked it up very well. Both of those returns were blocked well. The first one, they took the backside safety or the return side safety, as we look at it, and they brought him over a little bit further than they normally would have. That really worked to our advantage. I thought that was a very well-blocked returned. The guys did a good job, and D’Ernest ran hard and got out to the 45. That got the momentum going, got the sideline going and we went down and made it 7-3. I thought that was a huge play for us. The second one, we have all been on, including his teammates, have been on D’Ernest all week long. He should have kept that outside. It was another very well-blocked play. We talk about hitting the seam and hitting the sideline, and if he hits a sideline, he might get another 15 yards. Our offense did a great job and took advantage of that good field position and went down and kicked the field goal. They were two big plays for us.”

 

On the Titans special teams units: 

“Their kickoff returner, No. 13 (Titans WR Cameron) Batson is very, very quick. He is one of those guys that if you are out of control at the point of attack, and I have been telling our guys all week, if you are out to control the point of attack, he is going to make you miss pure and simple. No. 14 (Titans WR Kalif Raymond) has done a nice job as a kickoff returner earlier in the year and as their punt returner. He has averaged over 9.0 yards a return, and he had a 40-yarder earlier in the year. He is another guy who is going to try to stretch the field on us and try to get to the outside. We have to do a great job of leveraging those guys. Overall, I know their coach. He is really good young coach, (Titans special teams coach) Craig Aukerman. (Titans P) Brett Kern has been a fantastic, fantastic directional punter for years and years and been to the Pro Bowl a couple of times. (Titans K) Stephen Gostkowski has settled down. Earlier in the year, he had some misses and had a couple of blocked, and he settled down and done a nice job. He has made four out of five at the end of the game where they either needed to tie or win. They play hard. They have guys who they take on the personality of their (Titans) Head Coach (Mike Vrabel), who is a tough guy. He was a tough guy when he played. He is a tough guy as a coach. That kind of trickles down to all three of the phases – O, D and special team. That is the message I am bringing our guys that we have to match or surpass their intensity. We have to get after them.”

 

On how WR Donovan Peoples-Jones has handled no longer returning kickoffs and Peoples-Jones’ key blocks on kickoff return: 

“Like a pro. He is an amazing young man. I am proud of him. That is hard for a young player who came in, and we drafted him to be a returner. When (WR) JoJo (Natson) went down, he came in and took over both. I think D’Ernest provided a little bit of juice for us on kickoff return last week, and that was very evident. Donovan was a big part of that. He did a great job lead blocking, and he blew up the kicker on the one. That was a great block and allowed us to get another 10-12 yards. The second one, he did a nice job, as well. We just have to take advantage of that blocking, like I said earlier, get outside and get another 10-15 yards. He is a pro. He is a backup gunner. We can use him as a No. 1 or No. 2 on kickoff if we need him. He has done great job on offense because he knows all three spots. You talk to (pass game coordinator/wide receivers) Coach (Chad) O’Shea about how well the young man knows the offense at such a young age. He has been a very valuable part of our football team, and I am glad we have him.”

 

On why there seems to be a significant decrease in long kickoff or punt returns in recent years: 

“I think one of the reasons on kickoff is the rule change. You only have three guys deep so if guys get by those front eight – the eight guys who are in the setup zone – they have more of an opportunity to make plays. Return teams are doing a good job of trying to scheme and do some different things to take away that aggressiveness, like we had some issues earlier in the year. I think we are doing a better job lately. We have to keep doing that to help our defense with field position. I think part of it is the rule changes on kickoff and kickoff return. Some of these punters, you look at the punter we are going against Brett Kern is a phenomenal directional putter. Even though he does not always get great hang time, if you put a 52-yard punt that is 4.4 hang time outside of the numbers towards the sideline, if you have a good gunner on that side and he does a nice job getting down there, you are not going to get very far. In our stadium, it is tougher for punters and kickers to do some of that stuff because of the wind and weather that we have had this year, but I think that is part of it. The punting, the directional punting and the kickoff and kickoff return type of rules have limited a little bit. Plus, people are kicking a lot of touchbacks, too, because they do not want to deal with it. Sometimes I was very stubborn. Obviously early in the year, you guys saw that. We talked about that, and we were challenging teams early and it kind of backfired on us a little bit. We have settled down and kicked touchbacks when we need to, and our guys are covering a lot better, too. I am excited about the last five weeks and continuing to improve in all areas.”

 

On if there are some vulnerabilities on the Titans special teams units, given two of Tennessee’s three losses were impacted by significant special teams plays, recognizing Titans P Brett Kern missed time this season:

“Losing Brett Kern hurt them a lot, and they had two different punters come in there and try to shore it up. I know the one punter they had in, they had a punt blocked. It was not his fault on the block, but he had shanked one for 15-20 yards the one before. Anytime you lose a guy like Brett Kern, it really hurts obviously their punt team and their field goal team, too. They had some snapping issues earlier, and they have replaced the snapper, as well. I think they have shored it up. They are well-coached.”

 

On a big picture mindset on the current state of the team and being in the playoff hunt, particularly compared to the season opener last year:

“This team handles itself very well without looking at too far ahead. Last year, I think coming into the season everybody was talking playoffs, Super Bowl and all that stuff, and I do not think you can do that any year, no matter how much talent you have on your team. I think from our Head Coach (Kevin Stefanski) on down to everybody, the coaching staff and the players, we have approached each week differently. How do we win this game? How do we win this week? What do we need to do offensively, defensively and on special teams to beat the Tennessee Titans, for example? That has been our main focus. When you do it that way and just go one week at a time and you approach it that way, you have much more chances of success. You do not get caught up in too much of the outside distractions and everybody telling you, ‘Oh, you are 8-3. You are going to the playoffs. You are going to the playoffs.’ That is not necessarily the case. What we have to do is we have to win this week, and that is going to put us one game closer to the playoff situation. Again, we have done a good job of going week by week by week, and I think that is the only way to handle that.”

 

On the Browns’ improved focus on one week at a time this season and if it that is the result of Head Coach Kevin Stefanski or the team learning from last year’s experience:

“A lot of the guys were not here last year or if they were, they were not playing as much on offense, defense or even special teams. This is a brand new team. Our personnel guys have done a nice job of bringing in guys who are laser focused and have an understanding of how important every situation is – every different situation, down and distance on offense and defense and every kicking, punting and field goal situation for special teams. I do think that starts with the leadership at the top with Kevin, and it has trickled down to the staff. I have known him for a long time, and that is how we were both brought up in this business. That is how I have learned it from (former NFL Executive and Head Coach) Tom Coughlin to (Youngstown State President) Jim Tressel to other guys who I have worked for as head coaches. I have learned a lot over the years how important that focus is week by week by week. You can’t get caught up in all of the other stuff. I know the fans love that. As a fan, I would love that. I am a big Cleveland Indians fan, and I do the same thing as a baseball fan. When you are a coach or a player, you have to approach it one day at a time and one game at a time.”

 

On his comment earlier this season that Peoples-Jones has the body type for kickoff return but needed more experience and if that lack of experience or overall skillset resulted in the change to Johnson returning kickoffs:

“He still has a great skillset. He is a big, strong guy who can run. I think with him, we just needed a change for that return unit. Like I said, I put him at halfback as more of a blocker. Plus, if they do kick it short, he is back there and he can handle those shorter type of kicks because he is a good ball security guy. He has handled it like a pro. With experience, he will get better. He does not have a lot of kickoff return experience but not to make excuses for him. He should and we should be better as a unit with him back there. It is not always his fault. We did not always block it well for him, and people schemed us nice at times and did a good job of kicking us into the corners and done some different things. Again, we needed a spark. I think D’Ernest provided that spark on Sunday, and I hope that keeps going.”

 

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