By Luke Nicholson
When Pittsburgh Steelers fans think about the Cleveland Browns, they might think of those ugly brown jerseys worn by dog-masked fans wielding chew bones. Some might wonder how a single team can destroy the careers of four quarterbacks (Tim Couch, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, and Colt McCoy) in just over a decade. Still others may reminisce about James Harrison’s epic body slam of a Browns fan running across the field. Those thoughts, however, should funnel toward the lone Cleveland player who, for the past seven years, has caused more hair loss among Steeler Nation than the remainder of the Browns’ roster combined: Josh Cribbs.
Cribbs has only caused problems for the Steelers’ defense in three of his 14 career games opposing the Black and Gold. Most recently, in last year’s regular season finale, he snared seven passes for 91 receiving yards. The other two games were both in 2009 and saw Cribbs rack up some decent rushing totals out of the wildcat formation. It is as a returner, however, where Cribbs has been a thorn in the side of the Steelers.
It seems that kick and punt coverage have been serious issues for the Steelers in recent memory, although they have not allowed multiple return scores in a season since 2009. While Jacoby Jones’ 63-yard touchdown return last week was the first surrendered by the Steelers’ coverage unit since 2010, it should serve as a reminder of the difficulties Cribbs has presented in the past.
Cribbs has racked up over 1,200 return yards and scored three of his 11 career return touchdowns when facing the Steelers. His stats indicated that he clearly comes to play against his hated division rival. He is now three seasons removed from his last touchdown and last 100-yard return games against Pittsburgh, but he is certainly still a game-changing threat any time he touches the ball.
Last week, the Dallas Cowboys showed their respect for Cribbs’ abilities in the return game, consistently squibbing kickoffs and booting five of seven punts out of bounds. On both occasions where Cribbs got his hands on a punt, the Cleveland offense started drives in Dallas territory and both of those drives resulted in touchdowns. The latter put the Browns ahead with just over a minute remaining in regulation. While the Cowboys did manage to eventually win the game in overtime, they almost lost because they kicked the ball to Cribbs.
With Charlie Batch under center this week, the Steelers have to play smart to come out of Cleveland with a win. That formula likely includes a healthy dose of running the football and completing high percentage passes. It most certainly includes keeping the ball as far away from Cribbs as possible. Hopefully Drew Butler is hard at work, perfecting his directional punting.