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SAN FRANCISCO — Brad Seely left the Cleveland Browns and brought Blake Costanzo along with him to the 49ers. Now, these two have something pretty special going on special teams.

Back in Ohio, Seely's old unit is struggling. The Browns miss the highly regarded coach who has become known as "The Professor" — for both his scholarly looks with those glasses, and for his teaching methods. Costanzo left quite a void, too.

Special teams is likely to play a key role Sunday, when the Browns (3-3) face a tough task against Seely and the NFC West-leading 49ers at Candlestick Park. San Francisco is 5-1 for the first time since 1998 and fresh off its bye week, still riding high from a 25-19 victory over the previously unbeaten Lions two weeks ago.

Yes, Jim Harbaugh worked on his handshake after a postgame flap with Detroit's Jim Schwartz, albeit just high-fiving his 3-year-old daughter, Addison, last week while getting away for a little family time.

"She's got the high-five down," Harbaugh said of the toddler.

Cleveland is trying to improve off a 6-3 win over Seattle last Sunday in which the Browns had the ball for nearly 43 minutes and managed a pair of field goals by Phil Dawson, both from beyond 50 yards.

They hope their second trip out West in three weeks goes better than the first. The Oakland Raiders returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown and faked a field goal for a score in a 24-17 win on Oct.16.

Against the Seahawks, the Browns gave up a punt return for a touchdown before it was called back on penalty. Needless to say, Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur focused on special teams this week.

Harbaugh, meanwhile, is working to make sure his players keep their edge.

The 49ers suddenly face a game they very much should win.

Harbaugh's Niners have been thriving and surprising so far as one of the NFL's underdogs, rallying from behind to win their first three road games.

"We're in a good position," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "As we talked about in our team meeting, right now is when we can separate ourselves from other teams. We have to continue to press forward and not let up and keep it going."

Seely has been a big reason for the success so far.

During his two years with Cleveland, he developed impressive kick return and coverage units. He's doing the same thing for the 49ers, who have succeeded in all facets on special teams. There's kicker David Akers with 13 field goals and three from 50-plus yards, punter Andy Lee with his 50.5-yard average and return man Ted Ginn Jr., who ran back a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the season opener against Seattle.

"The Professor" is getting production out of Costanzo and the rest of his pupils as well.

Cleveland return man Josh Cribbs isn't surprised.

"He's very smart. He brought a lot of fundamental, basic stuff, just playing the game the way it's supposed to be played," Cribbs said. "A lot of guys get on special teams and they don't know how valuable special teams is to the football team. Brad being an assistant head coach as well, special teams is everything. You came off of offense and defense before you came off of special teams — just instilling that within the guys and how important it was to the football team. His attention to detail was just on point."

The Browns have all new schemes under new coach Chris Tabor.

San Francisco would like to keep Cribbs from a repeat of his last performance against the 49ers.

The Pro Bowl returner ran a punt back 76 yards for a touchdown against Lee in a 20-7 Browns victory four years ago. He knows Seely will have his group ready to guard against that happening this time.

"He has a great coverage unit," Cribbs said. "I think they're going to use that experience they have with Brad and the guys they have on special teams against us and punt the ball away to us."

Seely first saw the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Costanzo, out of Lafayette College, during his initial two seasons in Buffalo. Seely liked Costanzo's grit despite being undersized and overmatched much of the time.

Costanzo had his first NFL tackle while with the Bills against Cribbs. They were good friends in Cleveland.

"One of the best football players I've ever played with, and it will be exciting to try to tackle him again," Costanzo said.

Seely signed Costanzo in Cleveland, then put in a good word to get him in a Niners uniform.

"I always respected what he did and how he worked at his craft — and he's not the biggest guy, he's not the strongest guy," Seely said. "But he's one of those guys that his whole is much better than the parts. What he brings on Sunday is really a unique situation for us in special teams in the sense that he's really good at his job."

Even if the coach insists, "You think he should be picking up the towels ... he looks like a guy who should be working a 9-to-5 job." He even suggested the idea of Costanzo parking cars as a valet — except that one of the things the versatile Costanzo can't do is drive a stick shift.

Costanzo shrugs it all off with a smile.

"I don't look like much of a football player. I say all my genetics are hidden inside," he said, chuckling. "But I actually do help. In Cleveland I used to help fold some towels. I help these guys fold some towels sometimes, too. I can do anything."

A quick check with members of the 49ers equipment staff revealed that Costanzo hasn't been put to work yet, but they plan to take him up on the offer at some point.

Costanzo's first order of business is beating his old team. Wideout Braylon Edwards, working back from knee surgery, also hopes to play against his former team.

49ers quarterback Alex Smith is quick to point out that teams are 3-9 this season in the week after their bye.

"With 10 games left, so much can happen," Smith said. "No question we got off to a good start, but there's still that pressure, that anxiety to keep this thing going. And I think all these guys feel it, and I think it's a good thing. You certainly don't want anyone feeling good, or complacent or anything."