Browns-Lions: The Play of the Game

Steve King sets it up, and Lane Adkins breaks it down: the key play in last night's 27-10 Browns win over the Lions. Why was it the turning point? Why did the play work? And what was the impact? Analysis you won't get anywhere else...

Watch video of this play via NFL.com

THE SET-UP

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again – and this time hope the play is not called back because of a penalty.

That's exactly what happened in the play of the game in the Browns' 27-10 victory over the Detroit Lions in Saturday night's preseason home opener at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The Browns' Joshua Cribbs returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown – or so he thought. Penalties, which plagued the Browns all last season and in the 17-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers a week earlier in the preseason opener, reared their ugly head again. The score was nullified by a holding call on safety Abram Elam, a Kent State product, as he locked up with a Detroit player to help spring Cribbs, who was running by him about five yards to his left.

But the Browns still scored on the possession, going 74 yards in seven plays to get a four-yard TD run by Jamal Lewis. It was the first offensive TD by the Browns in eight games, the final six of last year and the Packers contest.

Cornerback Eric Wright's interception on the Lions' first play after the ensuing kickoff set up a Phil Dawson 33-yard field goal, and the Browns, who had scored a combined total of 31 points in those seven previous games, had 10 – and a 10-0 lead – in the first 5:12.

Go figure.

Still, the Lions were definitely in the game. Ten points is not an insurmountable deficit. All they had to do was just settle down and get going.

But instead of letting the Lions begin to calmly mount a comeback, the Browns put the final nail in the coffin for all intents and purposes. It came when Detroit punted on its next possession and Cribbs took Nick Harris' 56-yard kick and bobbed and weaved his way 84 yards down the field for a TD.

This time, there were no flags, so it counted. – Steve King


THE PLAY

Nick Harris was playing a dangerous game. Possessing a strong leg, the Lions punter was getting great distance as Matt Stafford's ineffectiveness provided plenty of opportunities, but Harris' booming punts were out-kicking the Lions' coverage throughout the game.

Execution by the Lions in special teams coverage was not necessarily poor as Detroit struggled to contain Cribbs during the first part of the game, and Gerard Lawson later on. But when coverage is out-kicked by 12-15 yards, as was the case on the 84-yard punt return by Josh Cribbs, the job of the coverage unit becomes very difficult, especially with a fearless speedster like Cribbs looking for a touchdown on every return.

On Harris' long kick, the Detroit kick coverage unit had a small breakdown in maintaining their lanes, which was only magnified by the solid job of the Cleveland kick return unit.

Harris did place the punt well, kicking it to the left hash-marks. The Lions' containment was geared to keep Cribbs from crossing over the hash-marks.

But Harris' long kick gave Cribbs plenty of space. With a large cushion between him and the oncoming Lions' coverage unit, Cribbs needed, in essence, one immediate block to pick his lane.


Cribbs has lots of time to pick a lane. From NFL.com Video.

The initial block was supplied by Browns' special teams ace Nick Sorensen, who won't threaten for a starting safety job, but has made a nice NFL living excelling on special teams. Sorensen quickly moved to head off the Lions gunner,  opening the door for Cribbs to take the ball up the gut against the Detroit coverage unit.

While not making a block, rookie WR Brian Robiskie positioned himself between a Lions coverage unit player and Cribbs just right of the center of the field, enabling Cribbs to cut inside the outside perimeter of containment.

Immediately following Cribbs' move to the center and heading toward the left hash-marks, rookie LB David Veikune sealed off an opening which a Lions' defender had a clear angle on Cribbs. Again, if Veikune doesn't maintain his responsibility and wait on the coverage, Cribbs is likely to be pinned and stopped.

Following the cut to the left hash-marks, Cribbs' strength and a poor angle and attempt by a member of the Lions' outside containment freed Cribbs down the sideline.

Click to view full size image
Cleveland Browns' Josh Cribbs (16) heads for the end zone. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Despite two Lions' players having an angle on Cribbs, the KR/WR sped unabated to the end-zone, with CB's Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald running interference deep in Detroit territory.

The Browns special teams practice return and coverage every single day in practice sessions. During some practice sessions, special teams drills are worked on multiple times. It's that important, and the work showed as Sorensen, Robisksie and Veikune provided key support for Cribbs' big play.

Led by highly-regarded special teams coach Brad Seely, the Browns special teams play is expected to again be one of the best in the game, following a down year in 2008. Seely focuses on having consistent practice approach and instilling a mentality throughout the roster that the play of special teams is as important and rewarding as the offense and defense. Which, for a team needing an edge - any edge - to succeed, it certainly happens to be.

With a talent like Josh Cribbs returning kicks, every return opportunity can prove important to this team. It was Cribbs and coaching which, on this one play, gave a solid advantage to Cleveland. – Lane Adkins

 

THE AFTERMATH

Cribbs score made it 17-0, and instead of being just two scores behind, the Lions now faced a three-score deficit. That was too much to make up, even though Detroit did cut the deficit back to 10, at 20-10, late in the third quarter. It broke the Lions' backs. You could just see the shoulders slumping on a team that lost all 16 of its regular-season games a year ago.

Been there, done that.

Way too many times.

"I saw that Detroit had squeezed a lot inside, and that set the blocks up really nice," Cribbs said. "When I hit the hole, it was wide open. I saw the kicker, and that was all she wrote. I've worked a lot on that play. It was well-schemed."

But so was the opening kickoff.

"I'm not sure I held, but the official made the call and we can't argue about it," Elam said. "Holding on a touchdown return, though, is not something we're supposed to do. We'll have to correct that in practice on Monday." – Steve King


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