Battle of Returners Looms

Two of the best kick returners today - perhaps in NFL history- square off Sunday at Soldier Field. Steve King talked to Josh Cribbs opposite number, Devin Hester, about the match-up...

Devin Hester. Joshua Cribbs.

Joshua Cribbs. Devin Hester.

No matter what order you put them in, they're the two best returners in the game today, and among the best in NFL history.

And they'll square off against each other on Sunday when Hester's Chicago Bears meet Cribbs' Browns at Soldier Field.

Hester is what Cribbs aspires to be as a total threat to score, for in addition to his work in the return game, the fourth-year pro from Miami (Fla.) has developed into a pretty good wide receiver.

Hester was third on the club in receptions last year with 51, good for 665 yards (a 13.0 yards-per-catch average) and three touchdowns. This season, he's tops – by a wide margin -- with 28 catches, five more than the runnerup, fellow wideout Earl Bennett.

He had a career-high 10 last Sunday, one of the few bright spots for the Bears in a 45-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Hester also has a team-best 373 yards, including a career-high 101 yards last Sunday, and is tied for the club lead in TD catches with three.

Compare that to Cribbs, who is really struggling at wideout with just 10 catches, tying for his career-best, set in 2006. He has only 26 catches in five pro seasons.

But Cribbs can't get discouraged over that, for the trip for Hester to get to this point wasn't easy. Just as Cribbs never played wide receiver at Kent State – he was a slash-type quarterback – Hester hadn't worked at that position since the first two games of his freshman year with the Hurricanes. After that, he played running back, fullback and cornerback for them before going to the Bears.

"It was very difficult," Hester said of the learning process in a conference call with the Cleveland media on Wednesday. "You're talking about playing at the highest level of football there is, the NFL, and having to start with the basics."

Hester has made it work through hard work. He did not catch any passes in his rookie season of 2006 after being taken in the second round of the NFL Draft, and had 20 grabs for 299 yards and two scores in '07 before really coming into his own last year..

But while Hester is a receiver the Browns struggling cornerbacks are definitely going to have to watch on Sunday, it is as a returner where he has really made his mark in the league. Because of his work on offense, the Bears no longer use him to bring back kicks.

"I miss the kickoffs," Hester said. "It's tough fitting in receiving with kickoff and punt returns, too. But when you're a receiver, it gives you a chance to get the ball into your hands even more."

More touches, more chances for TDs. It's not hard to figure that one out.

The fact Hester is not a kickoff returner anymore is lucky for the Browns, because he has four career returns for TDs. But he is still very much a part of the punt return game, where he has a team-record seven – yes, seven – scores, but none so far this year.

With his combined career total of 11 punt and kick returns for TDs, he is fourth in league history, just two behind leader Brian Mitchell and one in arrears of Dante Hall and some guy named Eric Metcalf, who played most of his career with the Browns.

"Catching Brian Mitchell is definitely in the back of my mind," Hester said.

It's probably in the front of his mind, to be more specific, but we won't go into that.

Cribbs leads the NFL this year in punt return average at 16.4 yards and has a score on a 67-yarder. He is No. 4 in the league in kickoff return average at 28.9 yards, including a TD on a 98-yarder.

He has eight career returns for TDs, six of which have come on kickoffs. He is in a 10-way tie for eighth place on the league's all-time list

And as a coverage man on both kickoffs and punts, Cribbs will also be running downfield to try to corral Hester on punts.

"Cribbs is in all four phases, and he's doing pretty good at it," Hester said.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith said in another conference call with the Cleveland media on Wednesday that Hester "is just a great player with his hands on the ball, but I can say the same thing about Joshua Cribbs. You just see two talented athletes who excel wherever you put them."

And fate will put them on the same field on Sunday.

"When a guy like that – someone you're competing against in the return game -- comes to town, it doers spice things up a little more for me," Hester said.

And also for Cribbs and the fans, both at Soldier Field and those watching on TV.

With the struggles of the Browns, the game may not be that good. But the game within the game of Devin Hester vs. Joshua Cribbs ought to be outstanding.


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