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Cleveland's Cribbs Presents Variety Of Threats


Considering the Packers already this year have faced Chicago's Devin Hester, Cincinnati's Chad Ochocinco, St. Louis' Steven Jackson and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, when Head Coach Mike McCarthy called Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs "one of our toughest challenges of the year" this week, that's saying something.

But McCarthy wasn't just talking up Cribbs because he happens to be the most dynamic player on an otherwise struggling Browns team that's 1-5. Cribbs truly might be as big a multi-threat player as there is in the NFL right now.

He returns kickoffs. He returns punts. He plays wide receiver and takes handoffs on end-arounds. And he is a "Wildcat" quarterback who is still progressing in that role.

Normally when a team's playmaker is listed as a wide receiver, like Cribbs is, the defensive game plan targets him to try to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible. But that won't work with Cribbs. He's going to get the ball, almost anywhere on the field, and the Packers are going to have to deal with him.

"He's very strong, and he runs with good balance," Cleveland head coach Eric Mangini said of the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Cribbs. "He's got better speed than you think, and he's got just a will. There's some plays where he just wills it to happen, and I know that's not a tangible characteristic, but it feels tangible when you watch him run."

Too many teams have seen Cribbs run wild in the return game in his four-plus seasons in the league. A non-drafted free agent out of Kent State, where he played quarterback, Cribbs initially made his mark as a kickoff returner, bringing one back for a touchdown in each of his first two seasons.

Beginning in 2007, he added punt return to his regular duties, and took one back for a score that way as well.

Including his 67-yard punt return against Minnesota in Week 1 and a 98-yard kickoff return against Pittsburgh last week, Cribbs now has eight return TDs in his career (six kickoffs, two punts). Already this season, he has three other punt returns of 20-plus yards and one other kickoff return of 40-plus. His 16.8-yard punt return average ranks first in the league among players with enough attempts to qualify, and his 28.4-yard kickoff return average ranks seventh.

"I think he is a strong runner," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "He tries and get north and south as soon as he can, and he's hard to tackle because of his strength. He's 215 pounds and he's built like a big running back. You have to intentionally wrap him up to get him to the ground."

So far this year, other than two long punt returns by Cincinnati's Quan Cosby in Week 2, the Packers' coverage units have performed well, and they'll need to be rock-solid against Cribbs.

Lately some new players are emerging as core contributors on Green Bay's coverage teams, in part because of the absence of Korey Hall, who has missed time with a concussion and a calf injury, and Cribbs will provide a legitimate test of their effectiveness. Last week against Detroit, three '09 newcomers - receiver Brett Swain, safety Derrick Martin and linebacker Brad Jones - each got in on three special teams tackles in the contest.

Slocum has noted how Swain added considerable size and strength in the offseason, and that physical growth has translated into on-field impact. Swain's textbook low tackle of Detroit returner Derrick Williams last week, which earned him the "Big Hit" award for the game from the coaching staff, speaks to that.

Meanwhile Martin and Jones, who are now tied for third on the team with six special teams tackles (behind only Hall, 7, and Desmond Bishop, 8) have shown a "knack for getting to the football," according to Slocum, and Jones' maneuverability in space has become his best asset.

"He does some of the things that I don't have to coach," Slocum said. "He just naturally makes guys miss and gets to the ball carrier. That's a good quality to have as a defensive player or as a cover guy."

The Packers' defensive starters will have to find a way to get to Cribbs, too, because he's likely to run the ball either from his receiver position or out of the Wildcat.

Offensively, Cribbs started slowly this season with just 10 yards on four rushes through the first two games. But since then, combining end-around runs and Wildcat runs, he has gained 91 yards on eight carries, an average of 11.4 yards per touch.

That includes six rushes for 45 yards last week against Pittsburgh, when Cleveland ran more than a dozen snaps of Wildcat, the most the Browns have run this season. But Cribbs also threw an interception in two pass attempts last week, and he's listed as questionable on the team's injury report this week with a knee injury, so those factors could affect Cleveland's deployment of the Wildcat going forward.

{sportsad300}The Packers have had very little exposure to the Wildcat this year so far. Jackson ran a couple of snaps of Wildcat for the Rams, and Percy Harvin ran one for the Vikings, but that's been it.

The biggest key against it, according to defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his players, is to not let it throw you off. Defenses can't let the Wildcat get them neglecting their fundamentals or reacting any slower to what they see, otherwise the "change-up" is working just as the offense intended.

"Wildcat or conventional style of offense, you still have to play your gaps," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "If you play your gaps, then Wildcat doesn't really mean anything. Guys have to stay disciplined in what they're doing and we'll be fine."

In fact, the focus on defensive fundamentals, and reading keys, is probably heightened against the Wildcat because it's a more old-fashioned style of football. And Cribbs is the kind of player who will make teams pay for any fundamental breakdowns.

"He can run the ball on the sweep, he can run the option, and he even threw it a couple times," Capers said. "What it does is it puts you in a little bit more of a college mode to where you have to be conscious of assignment football and you have to play 'dive-quarterback-pitch' if they're doing that.

"You've got to be sound on your perimeter play, and you have to know that the reason they're doing it is because No. 16 is outstanding with the ball in his hands. He can make things happen."

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