OWINGS MILLS — The image of Cleveland Browns dangerous return man Joshua Cribbs accelerating upfield has been indelibly burned into the Baltimore Ravens’ collective memories.
A year ago, Cribbs piled up 237 kickoff return yards against the Ravens with one 92-yard return for a touchdown.
Two years ago, he set a franchise record against Baltimore with 245 yards.
"Cribbs has been a bad sight for the Ravens for more than just a few years," coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s probably the best return guy in the league in a lot of ways. He’s a beast. He’s really hard to tackle. We’ve got a lot of respect for him, and we’ve just got to tackle him."
Easier said than accomplished, though.
Cribbs ranks fourth in the NFL in punt return average. He has already run back a punt for a kickoff this year.
One game removed from giving up a 53-yard kickoff return to San Diego Chargers running back and returner Darren Sproles, the Ravens’ task just got even tougher.
Cribbs blends breakaway speed, tackle-breaking ability and moves. He’s a bull to bring down at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, shrugging off tacklers.
"I think he’s the best returner in the league that I’ve played against and I’ve played with Devin Hester," Pro Bowl special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "The first dude that hits him can’t miss the tackle. He’s got to at least hold onto him until everybody else can jump on top of him.
"Once he breaks one or two tackles, he’s pretty much home-free. You have to swarm him, keep on top of him and keep him frustrated. He’s a big strong guy and his speed is deceptive."
Cribbs broke into the league as an undrafted rookie from Kent State four years ago with the Browns.
Ironically, it was Ravens special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg who lobbied for the Browns to hold onto Cribbs at the time when he was at risk of being cut.
"I think what sets him apart is he’s a football player, he gets free in so many different ways," Rosburg said. "He can run past guys, make people miss and run over people in the open field. He’s just got a lot of skills, and that’s why he is what he is.
"You just have to do a great job of containing him and attacking the whole field. We’ve made a big point in our coverage all week long of trying to make sure that he doesn’t get out in the open field."
Cribbs was named to the Pro Bowl in 2007 and is regarded as one of the top special-teams performers in the game.
Since he entered the league, no player has as many kickoff returns for touchdowns with Cribbs registering five scores. He has returned a combined seven punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns, totaling 5,707 kickoff return yards for a 26.2 average.
"If he gets the ball, you’ve got to have 11 guys around him," wide receiver Kelley Washington said. "He’s got it all. He’s got vision. He’s strong. He’s fast.
“He’s a special returner who’s got it all. You have to be very disciplined in your coverage against a returner like him."
And it’s difficult to avoid kicking it to Cribbs on kickoffs.
“There’s not much you can do on kickoff coverage, Rosburg said. "You’re going to kick the ball, and he’s probably going to catch it. So, you have to do a great job of containing him.
“He’s going to attack the whole field, and we’ve made a big point in our coverage all week long of trying to make sure he doesn’t have any open windows.”
The Ravens had some suspect moments against the Chargers, so Cribbs’ presence is a major concern.
“We have a ways to go, real frankly,” Rosburg said. “We gave up a big return last week, unfortunately. It was simply a mistake on our part.
“It’s going to be an ongoing process. We’re going to work hard on it every week, because every week in this league you’re going to face good players.”
INJURY UPDATE: Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is a potential game-time decision due to a shoulder injury.
He returned to practice Friday on a limited basis and is listed as questionable on the injury report.
"That’s going to be an issue whether he can take people on or not," Harbaugh said. "I think he’s going to be OK, but we’ll just have to see how he feels."
Johnson has impressive durability and said earlier this week that he expects to play. If he can’t go, then Antwan Barnes would start in his place.
Meanwhile, free safety Ed Reed (nerve impingement) didn’t practice Friday after working the previous two days. He’s questionable for Sunday as well as tight end L.J. Smith.
Smith (pulled left hamstring) suggested that he might not be activated even though he participated fully in practice.
"It’s not just about my leg, you’ve got to figure out the game plans and special teams," he said. "It’s complicated. I feel better, but you know how it is. There are a lot of things that goes into whether you’re up or down.”
Offensive tackle Jared Gaither (illness) returned to practice on a full-time basis and is listed as probable.
"I’m feeling much better," Gaither said. "I’m definitely going to go."
"He wasn’t feeling too well, but the main thing was we didn’t want to get sick,” Harbaugh said. “Some stuff’s been going around, so guys have been dealing with it."
Cornerback Fabian Washington (concussion, flu) is probable. He’s expected to start and line up opposite Cribbs.
"I feel great," he said. "I’m over it. I’m good to go. I wouldn’t go out there if anything was wrong with my head. I’ve been cleared."
Defensive tackle Justin Bannan (knee) and safety Tom Zbikowski (concussion) are probable. Bannan was upgraded to full participation.
The Browns might not have former NFL Offensive Player of the Year running back Jamal Lewis in the lineup. He’s doubtful after missing his third practice in a row with a hamstring injury and isn’t expected to play.
The Browns are planning to start Jerome Harrison with rookie James Davis filling in behind him.
Offensive guard Floyd "Porkchop" Womack (ankle) didn’t practice all week and is doubtful, as is offensive lineman Rex Hadnot (knee).
Kicker Phil Dawson (right calf) is questionable as well as nose guard Shaun Rogers (foot) and linebacker David Bowens (knee).
The Browns are apparently concerned enough about Dawson that they worked out four kickers Friday, including Billy Cundiff, Matt Bryant and Shane Andrus.
TOUGH ASSIGNMENT: Six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk has plenty of experience blocking Rogers, the Browns’ massive nose guard.
From Birk’s time in the NFC North when he was with the Minnesota Vikings, he used to play against Rogers twice a year when Rogers was with the Detroit Lions.
"He’s got a rare combination of great size and explosiveness," Birk said. "There just aren’t many guys like him. He can move. He’s special and unique.
“He’s big, strong, quick and explosive. You get in there and you battle with a guy like that. He’s a great nose guard."
TRYOUT: The Ravens tried out Dave Brytus, a left-footed punter, to prepare for the left-footed boots of former Baltimore punter Dave Zastudil.
QUICK HITS: Browns coach Eric Mangini praised Cleveland general manager George Kokinis, the former Ravens director of pro personnel. "We kept in touch over the years," Mangini said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "His insight on personnel is extremely important, and something that he’s built on as a college scout and then as pro personnel director. He’s got a wealth of experience that has been really great for me." … Wide receiver Derrick Mason needs three receptions to reach the 800 mark. … Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is six sack yards behind Peter Boulware atop the franchise’s sack yardage list. Suggs currently has 423 combined yards on 54 1/2 sacks.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.