As the winless Cleveland Browns struggled with consistency the first four weeks of the season, ranking near the bottom of the league in every offensive category, the special teams units still provided good field position. That was due to Browns explosive return man Joshua Cribbs, who compiled 223 yards on returns in an overtime loss to the Bengals last week. It goes without saying that Cribbs will be a main priority for the Bills coverage units Sunday.
Cribbs, the nephew of former Bill Joe Cribbs, has five career kickoff returns for touchdowns and two as a punt returner?the most recent coming on 67-yard score in the season opener against the Vikings. This season, the 2008 Pro Bowler leads the AFC in punt return average (18.2) and yards (237), meaning the Bills must improve on third down conversions to avoid kicking him the ball.
Getting nearly doubled in time of possession against Miami, the offense needs to sustain longer drives Sunday to limit the chances of the Browns getting a short field courtesy of Cribbs? exploits.
Jon Corto said Cribbs? combination of physical strength and speed getting up field makes him one of the most dangerous returners in the league. Both those qualities can hurt a team if he?s not tackled in numbers.
?He?s very physical, runs really hard and he?s just a tough tackle. Guys have to wrap up and really hit him thick,? Corto said. ?He gets yardage and is really effective at it. He?s a playmaker and in order for us to be successful this week, we need to gang tackle him and when we get a chance to hit him we?ve got to wrap him up.?
Now in his fifth season, Cribbs played quarterback at Kent State before signing with the Browns as a free agent in 2005. The Browns started to utilize him in three wide-receiver sets last season, including 39 yards on nine receptions in 2009, but the team might fill that role with the acquisition of slot receiver Chansi Stuckey, acquired Wednesday in the Braylon Edwards trade with the New York Jets. Veteran Mike Furrey is still another option.
This should keep Cribbs focused primarily on his special teams duties.
Justin Jenkins said Cribbs? size alone (6?1?, 215) will offer enough problems, but he also has the quickness to break a long run in any situation.
?You always got dynamic returners inside the NFL, guys like Roscoe (Parrish) and (Darren) Sproles?you know the smaller guys. But, you rarely see a bigger guy like Cribbs who can get out just as well as those guys and take the hits, take the pounding as he?s running. 1-on-1 tackles are very hard to come by with him, so you have to make smart decisions and go low.?
Unlike the other quick returners in the NFL, who shift and change directions, Jenkins said Cribbs has no fear.
?He?s going to bring toughness. He?s sees you and sometimes will try to run through you ?Cribbs is just that type of guy,? he said.
The Bills certainly have a history with Cribbs when the teams squared off each of the past two seasons. In two career games, he did most of his damage with four kick returns for 90 yards. All but one were compiled Nov. 17, 2008 in the Browns 29-27 victory on Monday Night Football. Although Cribbs two-yard touchdown run gave the Browns an early 13-0 advantage, his return numbers were outdone by Leodis McKelvin?s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Corto, who played against Cribbs last season and in the 2007 matchup on kickoff coverage units, said there is familiarity with how to defend his explosive tendencies. However, the experience can only take a coverage unit so far.
?Each year it?s different, but we have respect for their special teams?they have a good unit. They were 3rd in the league last year, so it?s always a challenge for us,? Corto said. ?I?m sure coach (Bobby) April adjusts his game plan to the new coaching staff and what he implements on special teams, so I?m sure our game plan is different from what is was last year.?
In light of his productive day against the Bengals last week, the main concern for Cribbs is putting the Browns offense in the best possible situation to score points.
?We just gotta show up in the win column. We get the ball across the 50 or to the 20, we gotta score, gotta score,? he said.
The Bills special teams units as whole needs a productive day since the battle for field position could be a deciding factor for both teams. Compared to their lofty standards of past years, rankings of 13th and 27th in kick coverage and punt coverage, respectively need improvement.
Corto said the mistakes have been disappointing thus far, but the early timing of the season allows for gradual improvement.
?Every year it seems like our unit has started out slow and gotten better each game. Although we?ve gotten a lot of penalties and setbacks early on, I think each game we?ve gotten a little better. That?s our main focus?getting better,? Corto said. ?So by Week 16, we?re playing at our best. That?s how we?ve always been.?
?Bobby has always done a great job of correcting things, helping us out and putting the units in good position,? Jenkins added. ?We have a good challenge with Josh Cribbs, but I feel like our confidence was boosted this past Sunday.?