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12-06-2006, 11:11 PM
Head to Head: Steelers special teams vs. Browns kick return specialist Joshua Cribbs
Thursday, December 07, 2006

By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Clint Kriewaldt has never known of a good time to have the opposing team return a kickoff for a touchdown. Doesn't seem to matter if it's the first half or second, if your team is winning or losing.

But, when reminded of the meeting in Cleveland, when Joshua Cribbs returned a fourth-quarter kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown, Kriewaldt said, "That was definitely not the right time."

For all intents and purposes, the unofficial end of the Steelers season came two weeks ago in Baltimore, in a 27-0 loss to the Ravens that all but mathematically eliminated them from post-season participation.

But, at the time, it appeared the end came Nov. 19 in Cleveland Browns Stadium when Cribbs' touchdown gave the Browns a 20-10 lead with 9:33 remaining. It was the most damaging return in a season that had been littered with long returns. Only a 21-point splurge in the fourth quarter prevented the Steelers from losing that game.

"There was a big ol' hole to run through," said Kriewaldt, a special teams co-captain. "I was by his feet and I looked up and there was like a highway he was running down. The good thing is, it was something that definitely was correctable. Since that game, guys have definitely turned it up a notch."

Indeed, the Steelers have turned downright stingy in their kick coverage the past two games, allowing an average of just 20 yards on six returns. And they get a chance to showcase their improvement -- not to mention, redeem themselves -- when they face Cribbs and the Browns tonight at Heinz Field.

Cribbs is third in the AFC in kick returns with a 26.7-yard average and is one of only five NFL players to return a kickoff for touchdown this season. But, since he gouged them for a 92-yard return, the Steelers have made changes in the way they cover kickoffs. The result: The longest return against them in the past two games is 30 yards, and that was by B.J. Sams on the lone kickoff against the Ravens to start the second half.

"It's unfortunate we've had some long returns," said Sean Morey, the other special-teams co-captain. "But all you can do is try to look at it objectively, try to cure the mistakes you made and try to prevent that from happening again."

There haven't been many personnel changes to the kick-coverage team. After the Cleveland game, backup linebacker Chad Brown was added to the squad. Also, the team has benefitted from the return to health of linebacker James Harrison.

But the biggest difference is in the way the Steelers have started to cover kickoffs -- lining players in different spots and having them run to different lanes to create confusion.

"You try to create some indecision on the return as to who they're blocking," Morey said.

"There are only certain guys who are moving around and guys who aren't are getting down there a little quicker," Kriewaldt said. "So you actually have like two levels instead of one big wave running down there. That's kind of helping because some guys are penetrating and some guys can be playing off a little easier."

Since using that style, the Steelers have allowed 120 yards on six returns.

That is a dramatic departure from earlier in the season when the Steelers allowed returns of 43, 45, 50, 51, 51 and 92 yards in a seven-game stretch.

Still, it will be put to a better test against Cribbs, an undrafted rookie in 2005 who was a quarterback at Kent State.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06341/744171-66.stm