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Here’s why special teams could make the difference for Chiefs vs. Browns

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In addition to everything else swirling around this game, the special teams matchup between the Chiefs and Browns is something to watch.

Kansas City Chiefs v Green Bay Packers Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images

It’s not exactly news that under special teams coordinator Dave Toub—the Kansas City Chiefs have been very good at special teams since his arrival in 2013.

For a lot of fans, success on special teams is defined by the number of touchdowns that are scored on kick returns. That’s certainly one of the factors to be considered — and since 2013, more than a few Chiefs victories depended on kick return touchdowns and other big plays on special teams.

But special teams play affects games in other ways that are far less visible. For example, did you know that since Toub arrived in Kansas City, the Chiefs haven’t given up a single kick-return touchdown? Special teams coverage units don’t get covered in glory, but preventing kick return touchdowns is just as important as scoring them.

Nor should we discount the field position advantages that good special teams play can provide. When the difference between where your team starts a drive and where the other team starts a drive is five to 10 yards, it may not seem like much of a difference. But that could be a whole set of downs that your team has to get — or prevent. And in a close game, that can be huge.

Dave Toub is up to us usual tricks in 2018. Now — as they have been for most of the season — his special teams units are ranked first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic. The Chiefs rank second in yards per punt return, and seventh in yards per kick return.

Which brings us to this week’s game against the Cleveland Browns — a team that is pretty much the opposite of the Chiefs in special teams play. The Browns are currently 31st in special teams DVOA. They rank 11th in yards per punt return and 21st in yards per kick return.

Cleveland Browns v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

So special teams play could be a significant factor in Sunday’s game. And Toub isn’t overlooking the Browns. Speaking to the media on Thursday, Toub spoke about Browns interim head coach Gregg Williams’ reputation for aggressiveness.

“You have to think, Gregg Williams is more of an aggressive guy,” Toub said. “Maybe there is a possibility that there could be some things... he might want to take a chance or a risk here or there. You have to be aware of that and just be prepared.”

Williams, after all, was defensive coordinator of the 2009 New Orleans Saints team that caught the Indianapolis Colts flat-footed with an onside kick attempt to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints recovered the kick, scored a touchdown to take the lead, and went on to win the game.

But Toub says the Chiefs will be watching for that kind of thing.

“We talk about it every week. If a team wants to steal a possession, that is how they are going to do it. They are going to kick a surprise onside kick or they are going to try and fake a punt. Those are the situations where we have to be ready and alert and paying attention to the details.”

But although Williams’ aggressive attitude at the top may affect top-line decisions the Browns could make on special teams, at the nuts-and-bolts level, Toub expects the Browns special teams units to be pretty much the same as they were before this week’s coaching upheaval in Cleveland.

“We have thought about that,” Toub said. “You have to believe that they are going to be the same. There is only so much you can do in a week. It is the same coach special teams-wise. Same guys. You have to believe that they are going to be what they are.”

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Toub also spoke about rookie cornerback Tremon Smith, who is currently ranked second in yards per kick return — and is just the latest in a long line of rookies Toub has coached into being effective returners.

“We’ve been developing Tremon this whole offseason, and [in] training camp,” he said. “We look for a guy that wants to hit it north and south, has a lot of courage, runs strong, makes good decisions, catches the ball coming forward... those are all things we look for. And a solid catcher — not somebody that’s going to put the ball on the ground — [somebody] who secures the football. That’s first. You’ve got to have that guy first. And he’s got experience. We got him a bunch of touches during the preseason, so we felt real comfortable — when De’Anthony Thomas was injured — to put him in there, and have him in there going forward.”