Key matchup: Browns return game vs. Bengals coverage units

Mike Wilkening
October 13, 2012
Key matchup: Browns return game vs. Bengals coverage units

Stopping Browns RS Joshua Cribbs will be a top priority for Cincinnati on Sunday, but Cribbs, one of the game's top returners, is again in fine form. We now take a closer look at this key matchup:

Browns return game vs. Bengals coverage units

The NFL's all-time leader in kickoff-return TDs (eight), Cribbs is widely regarded as one of the game's top special-teams performers.

Though Cribbs doesn't have a return touchdown yet in 2012, he's knocking on the door. In Week Five, he broke a 74-yard kickoff return against the Giants, his longest return since he returned kickoffs of 100 and 103 yards for scores against Kansas City on Dec. 20, 2009. While Cribbs is also very good on punt returns, gaining 13.0 yards per return through five games, kickoffs are his strength. He's averaging an impressive 31.2 yards on 18 kickoff returns this season.

Cribbs' quickness and vision are among his best assets, but his run strength is his calling card. The 6-1, 215-pound former colllegiate quarterback is not easy brought down. Young Giants DE Adrian Tracy learned this in Week Five. Tracy (6-2, 245) had a clear shot at Cribbs, and he connected with a solid tackle attempt. Cribbs, however, simply bounced off the Giants' defender and went on his way.

The Bengals have not allowed a return TD this season. They have been stronger on punts (5.9 yards per return, one of the best marks in the league) than kickoffs (26.6 yards, bottom half of the league). The Bengals will have to be assignment-sound against Cribbs, who will find any cracks in the coverage. What's more, he can break loose even if the play breaks down. In a famous example at Pittsburgh five seasons ago, he iniitally misplayed a kickoff, but he eluded several Steelers tackle attempts deep in his own end of the field, and when he got through that wave, he was well on his way to a 100-yard touchdown.

If there has been a weakness in Cribbs' game this season, it has been ball security. He has fumbled three times losing a costly one in the defeat to the Giants. However, the Bengals' initial focus must be on securing the tackle against Cribbs. He will run through garden-variety attempts to pry the ball away.

Cribbs has never scored a return touchdown against Cincinnati. However, his ability to break a long return any time he touches the ball will not be lost on the Bengals, who know their division rivals well — and know how good Cribbs has been for so long.