Cribbs’ kick returns impressing teammates and coaches

BEREA – Dreadlocks bobbing out of his orange helmet, Joshua Cribbs nonchalantly retreated inside Cleveland’s end zone on Sunday in Pittsburgh to retrieve a kickoff that had squirted by.

From his own 1-inch line, Cribbs bent over, reached for the ball and evaluated the situation. Bleak, would describe it best.

Cribbs could see black jerseys flying toward him at warp speed as the Steelers’ towel-waving fans inside Heinz Field roared while sensing the kill. This was no time for indecision or panic. Cribbs had two choices: Stay. Or go.

So off he went, and Cribbs didn’t stop for another 100 breathtaking yards.

“An amazing play,” teammate Darnell Dinkins said today.

Like so many others Cribbs is making for the Browns.

A quarterback at Kent State who wasn’t drafted in 2005, Cribbs racked up 204 yards in kickoff returns last week in a 31-28 loss to the Steelers. He brought back a kick 90 yards in the first quarter to set up a TD, and his electrifying 100-yard return in the fourth gave the Browns a temporary lead.

Chicago’s Devin Hester may be the game’s premier return specialist, but Cribbs is gaining

on him.

“Everybody in the NFL is looking for a guy like Josh Cribbs,” Browns center Hank Fraley said. “Fortunately, we got him. We just know that when he gets it in his hands, anything can happen.”

Cribbs has become an invaluable weapon for the Browns (5-4), who will try to bounce back from a tough loss this week at Baltimore.

With Cribbs averaging 32.4 yards per return – second in the league to Leon Washington of the New York Jets – Cleveland’s average starting position following kickoffs is the 33.9-yard line, a league-high.

Cribbs, who is also handling punt-return duties, can turn over a field in the blink of an eye.

“It’s nice when you get the ball at the 5-yard line and only have to go five yards to score,” quarterback Derek Anderson said. “But even when he gets it back to the 30 or 35-yard line, that’s better than where most teams start. He brings an energy to our offense.”

Browns coach Romeo Crennel coached special teams for the New York Giants in the 1980s. Crennel singled out Deion Sanders as the best returner he ever faced. Sanders was a speedburner. Cribbs is also fast, but while Sanders ran from contact, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Cribbs isn’t afraid to lower his shoulders.

“Josh doesn’t have Deion’s speed, but Josh has the vision to find the seam,” Crennel said. “He has the strength to make guys miss and then once he does get to the next level, past that first coverage level, something kicks in about him that says, ‘I have a chance to go and I’m going to make the most of it.'”

Cribbs, who signed a six-year contract extension last season, is now paying a price for his success on returns as teams are more frequently kicking the ball away from him.

After giving up the 90-yarder last week, the Steelers twice kicked it short to Dinkins, a backup tight end and one of the Browns’ deep coverage blockers who is playing with a soft cast on his arm.