Back in 2007, Browns kick returner Josh Cribbs went off against the Ravens, averaging 31.3 yards per kickoff return during a September matchup and then 35.0 yards per kick return and 15.3 yards per punt return in a November game.
In November of 2008, Cribbs again had a monster day against Baltimore, averaging 33.9 yards on seven kickoff returns, including one he took back 92 yards for a touchdown.
Since then, however, the Ravens have done a nice job of holding Cribbs in check despite his status as one of the more dangerous kick returners in the league.
In the last four matchups between the Ravens and Browns, Cribbs has not had a kickoff return longer than 37 yards or a punt return longer than 17 yards.
“If you think about it, my rookie year (in ‘08), we had a bunch of young guys on special teams,” safety Haruki Nakamura said. “With that, you’re still a little undisciplined. We didn’t stay in front of him, and the guy’s just dynamic. He’s big, he’s strong he’s physical, so he’s going to just run straight ahead and run through arm tackles. And that’s exactly what he did.
“I think as the years went on, we learned how to defend him, because it’s as simple as just getting in front of him, making him go laterally and just not letting him go north-south. Once he goes north-south, he’s pretty much going for the touchdown.”
Because Cribbs (6-foot-1, 215 lbs.) is bigger and stronger than most kick returners, he’s really tough to bring down when he’s running at full speed. That’s why Nakamura says it will be crucial to get Cribbs to slow down getting through the hole and force him to move from sideline-to-sideline.
“He’s so big, he’s so strong, and he uses that,” Nakamura said. “That’s his strength, so why would he go laterally? He can run through little guys. If you think about it, for the most part, you can probably have two or three big guys on special teams (coverage), but a lot of times, you’ve got a lot of DBs, sometimes receivers. You’re trying to get downfield real fast. That’s why a lot of it was experience. Now that we’ve faced him a whole bunch of times, we kind of figured out how to attack.
“And thank God we’ve got Jerry (Rosburg, special teams coordinator). Jerry totally understands him because he’s the guy who found Cribbs (from his tenure in Cleveland). It just was a matter of experience and getting better.”
Cribbs, a two-time Pro Bowler, isn’t having his best season this year, but he’s still a threat. The former collegiate quarterback is averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return (eighth-best in the NFL) with a long of 63 and 9.0 yards per punt return with a long of 43.
The Ravens have faced a couple of tough kick returners the last few weeks (Ted Ginn Jr., Leon Washington), and while their kick coverage numbers this season have not been to head coach John Harbaugh’s liking, he’s been pleased with their effort of late.
“We’ve gone the last few weeks against some of the premier punt returners in football, and one of our main priorities was to not let them wreck the game for us,” Harbaugh said. “And that’s going to be true with Josh Cribbs; he does both, just like Ginn did both. And if you go back, I think you’ll see the last few weeks, we’ve had the same challenges. So, we’ve played them a few times. He’s hurt us a few times - not recently, about three years ago I think he really hurt us - and we’ve just got to make sure we do a great job of that. But, our guys are up to the challenge.”