OWINGS MILLS – Joshua Cribbs anticipates a respectful, challenging approach from the Baltimore Ravens’ special teams, not the abject fear and avoidance he tends to create from most competitors.
The Cleveland Browns’ ultra-dangerous, versatile kick returner, wide receiver and Wildcat formation quarterback is convinced that the Ravens won’t back down.
Cribbs’ beliefs are based on his background with Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who launched Cribbs’ career in Cleveland as he nurtured the raw skills of the former undrafted quarterback from Kent State.
“Rosburg is the kind of guy not to back down,” Cribbs said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “He doesn’t back down. Even when we played here, I remember we used to play good returners and we used to get up for games when we had good returners. That’s the kind of coach that coach Rosburg is.”
The Ravens couldn’t be blamed if they did choose discretion as the better part of valor against Cribbs.
The Pro Bowl return man set two of the Browns’ top three single-game kickoff return records against Baltimore.
He returned seven kickoffs for 245 yards in a 33-30 overtime victory over Baltimore on Nov. 18, 2007.
One year later, Cribbs piled up 237 kickoff return yards, including a 92-yard touchdown, against the Ravens in a 37-27 defeat.
“In many ways, he’s such an explosive player, one of the best in the league,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Their special teams, I’ve said this before, but their special teams are like an all-star group. They’ve just got a bunch of core players. The specialists are all good, and Cribbs is the main guy. And we’re going to have our hands full.”
In 10 career games against Baltimore, Cribbs has averaged 26.8 yards per kickoff return.
However, the Ravens have no intentions of kicking it away from Cribbs.
“We’re not scared of anyone,” safety Haruki Nakamura said. “We respect everybody, especially him. He’s a great player, the best player they’ve got, but you don’t want to just concede field position.”
It was Rosburg who first believed in Cribbs as a rookie, nurturing him into a pivotal special-teams ace after he started for four years at quarterback at Kent State where he became the school’s all-time leader with 10,839 all-purpose yards.
Cribbs returned 45 kickoffs as a rookie for 1,094 yards and a touchdown and ranked second with 19 special-teams tackles.
“He started my career,” Cribbs said of Rosburg. “He gave me my drive and set me on a path. He’s the one who told me I can be a great player. He told me that he watched me in college and he gave me a name, he told me, Brian Mitchell. That’s who I’m trying to emulate my career after and try to surpass.
“I want to do better than him and make a name for myself in the process. We still live by his coaching, even on this team in the way we play. That’s why I believe he probably will kick it to me. This is a chance for him to prove how good his coverage unit is. So, he’ll get his coverage units up to stop me to help them for the rest of their season.”
Cribbs is the NFL’s active leader with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, including three scores last season.
He has also run back two punts for touchdowns.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder isn’t just a speedster. He’s packed with power and stiff-arms and shrugs off tacklers in the open field without breaking stride.
“He’s hard to tackle,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a big, strong guy, the same thing that makes him hard to bring down on offense. He’s a very physical runner. He’s very fast. There’s no hesitation in him. I don’t know if there’s a guy in the league that breaks tackles better than Josh Cribbs.”
The Kansas City Chiefs didn’t want to find out last week, so they avoided him as best they could on kickoffs.
So far this season, Cribbs has returned only four kickoffs for 65 yards for a 16.3 average
He caught a career-high with 74 receiving yards on three receptions, including a 65-yard touchdown catch.
“They weren’t even going to take the risk,” Cribbs said. “They’d rather give it to us on the 30, 35, 40 than give up a big play. Sometimes, I have to agree with that. Rosburg, he believes in his team, his coverage unit, and I doubt he will do that.”
The Ravens are also looking out for Cribbs in the Wildcat formation.
He has played quarterback under center, also lining up as a single back or at quarterback in the shotgun formation.
“It forces defenses to not only cover but take time out of their schedule to prepare a plan for it," Cribbs said. “If they don’t prepare a soundproof-enough plan for it, then we can burn them with it. So, they have to actually take time from their normal game plan to plan for specifically the Wildcat plays as opposed to our regular offense."
The Ravens are planning to account for Cribbs on every single play, a sound plan considering he caught 20 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown last season and also rushed for 381yards with a career-high 6.9 average per carry.
Last season, Cribbs gained 34 rushing yards on six carries against Baltimore.
"They are a fast-flowing defense, which at times can work against them, but it’s no correlation why I’m able to do some good things against them,” Cribbs said. “We just know that when we play our division opponents, when we play a team like Baltimore, somebody of that caliber, we have to be up on our game. I have to play up to my game when facing an opponent like that."
Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said the emphasis has to be maintaining gap integrity and not giving Cribbs room to operate.
“If we stop it early, then they won’t come back to it as often,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “We’ve just got to make sure that when they run it, it’s getting Cribbs down as fast as we can. He’s such a dangerous player.
“He can make you miss, he can run you over. If we play strong up front and get him stopped or not creating any holes for him, we’ll be able to stop the Wildcat pretty easy.”