Cribbs: The Spark is Back

Rule changes and player changes led to the returner's slump. That's over now.

Very little went right for the Browns offensively this season until they played the Bengals. Part of the problem can be traced to Joshua Cribbs not being as dynamic on kick returns as he had been in the past.

Cribbs wasn't the same player since the rule change eliminating the four-man wedge went into effect this season. He turned that around in a 23-20 overtime loss to the Bengals on three kick returns totaling 103 yards, including a 58-yard return. He also returned six punts for 120 yards. A 50-yard punt return set up the field goal that gave the Browns a 20-14 lead.

The Browns play the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday. Last year they played in Buffalo and, for one of the few times, won without Cribbs setting the tone. Cribbs returned three kicks for 64 yards in a 29-27 Browns victory.

Cribbs hopes the Bengals game isn't a fluke.

"I think other teams are recognizing the level of talent we have on our kick return team," Cribbs said. "They're working hard to defeat us in that area.

"I know I wasn't returning the ball as well as I have in the past -- definitely not. Teams are getting a bead on me, the wedge is different, we've had a lot of turnover on the kick return team. ... There are many factors. Effort doesn't play into it. I always give 110 percent and so does everybody else."

When the Browns won 10 games in 2007, Cribbs returned 59 kicks for 1,809 yards and two touchdowns and led the NFL with a 30.7 average. He tailed off to 25.2 yards on 44 returns last year in part because he was injured early but also because two unsung heroes in the wedge were not in front of him. Lennie Friedman was on injured reserve and Simon Fraser was in Atlanta after signing with the Falcons as a free agent. The Browns finished 4-12.

Kick returning isn't the only area in which the Browns missed Cribbs' spark. He was not the gunner on punt returns the first three games because coach Eric Mangini wanted to use him more on offense. That changed against the Bengals. Cribbs was on kick coverage and punt coverage.

Mike Adams, for one, is happy to have Cribbs back on the coverage teams. Adams said Cribbs provides energy that flows like electricity throughout the team. He said when Cribbs has a big return the offense feels the surge, and when Cribbs stops an opposing returner cold the defense picks up on it.

"I missed my partner in crime," Adams said. "We're a tandem. When he makes a big hit or gets a big return, that can turn a game around and lead to winning it."

UNDER THE RADAR: The Browns started Derek Anderson for the first time, and not coincidentally, rookie receiver Mohamed Massaquoi had a day he will have difficulty matching -- eight catches for 148 yards.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- Number of offensive touchdowns scored against the Bengals is double the Browns' output of the first two games.


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