Cribbs a 'reality check' for Steelers

The Steelers' new special teams coach, Al Everest, is looking on Sunday to A.) stop Josh Cribbs, and B.) jump-start his own return game with Emmanuel Sanders.

PITTSBURGH – The resumption of play after the bye week, or Phase II of the season, could be viewed by the Steelers as an end to the dress rehearsals.

At least that's the case for the special teams.

The Steelers' coverage units will be tested for the first time Sunday when they face the Cleveland Browns and old nemesis Josh Cribbs.

"It's a reality check," said the Steelers' new special teams coach Al Everest. "Josh Cribbs is probably one of the best returners in the game, no question. It's because of his size and the ability to break tackles. To me it's a great challenge for us because if we play as a unit, play as a group, play as a team, it's us against him and I like those odds."

That's what coaches have said about Cribbs ever since he joined the Browns out of Kent State where he was an option quarterback, or "a little Mike Vick," as his former college teammate James Harrison put it.

"He could do anything we asked him to do," Harrison said.

The Browns will take that same approach. On Sunday they'll ask Cribbs to catch some passes, run some wildcat, and probably even throw a pass or three since the Browns' first and second-team quarterbacks are injured.

But foremost for Cribbs is his job as a kick returner. The NFL record-holder with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, Cribbs has returned three of those against the Steelers, which ties the all-time record for success against any one team.

Cribbs very nearly returned a punt for a score against the Steelers last season, but punter Daniel Sepulveda tackled him at the 8-yard line. It would've been Cribbs' third career punt return for a touchdown.

One of those three came against Everest in 2007, when he was the special teams coach for the San Francisco 49ers.

The 49ers that year were on the cusp of setting an NFL record for net punting. They were one of two teams – the Oakland Raiders were the other – in contention to finish the season with over 40 yards net per punt, which had never been accomplished in the NFL. But in the final game of the season, Cribbs returned a punt 76 yards against the 49ers for a touchdown. The 49ers still finished at 41.0 net punting, but the Raiders snuck in front to set the new record at 41.1.

"Now, we had Andy Lee," Everest said of his punter. "He punts every ball right down the middle. That's just who the guy is. The options with him were not like the options we have now with Daniel. With Daniel, we've got hang-time options and directional options. We have the ability to do some things that we didn't have the last time."

Of course, there's always the option of not kicking to Cribbs. Last Sunday, the farthest the Atlanta Falcons kicked off was to the 10, and Cribbs returned that one 34 yards. The other Falcons kickoffs were shorter and either fielded by up-men or hit high enough for the coverage unit to surround Cribbs.

"To me, if you're looking for security, you need to sell insurance," Everest said. "We're here to play the game. But in saying that, we have to be smart in how we give him the ball. I think the bottom line is where your level is of coverage and what you believe in the people that are doing their jobs."

Right now, the Steelers are fifth in the NFL with a net punting average of 40.5. They allow opponents 21.6 yards per kickoff return to rank ninth.

"I like this coverage unit," Everest said. "Yeah. They work hard. They're starting to jell together a little bit in terms of feeding off each other, understanding where each other's going, understanding where they have to go, and how they fit on the coverages. When they do that, it's fun to watch."

Everest will also be watching his own return man with great interest, because rookie Emmanuel Sanders will replace Antonio Brown on kickoff returns and Antwaan Randle El in some punt returns, specifically those in which Sanders will receive the punt at or around midfield.

Of course, Brown has shown explosiveness. The other rookie receiver, Brown averages 31.1 yards per kickoff return and took one 89 yards for a touchdown. So, why replace him?

"You don't want to bury one," Everest said of Sanders, who hasn't been active since the opener.

"You've seen something out of one. You need to see what we've got in Emmanuel a little bit. It's still early in the season. Hopefully it'll sort itself out and then you move down the stretch when you should have your best players out there. There's a lot of debate on that, so we need to see what we've got."

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