When the 49ers welcome the Cleveland Browns to town, one of the 49ers biggest challenges will be containing Browns return man Joshua Cribbs. Although his numbers have not been off the charts this season, Cribbs remains the NFL's career leader in kickoff return touchdowns with eight. He has not returned a kick return for a touchdown since 2009, but the threat is always there.
Cribbs operates as the Browns primary punt and kick returner. He has two career punt returns for a touchdown, with one of them coming against Andy Lee in 2007. Cribbs discussed that return during a conference call with Bay Area media earlier this afternoon (AUDIO, transcript).
The Browns are finding a modest amount of success in their kick returns, ranking sixth in the league. The 49ers have built their team on a mix of a strong rushing game, a great defense, and excellent special teams. The special teams unit has been thoroughly dominant for much of this season and get a chance to show it off against a strong return man like Cribbs.
Cribbs believes his former special teams coach, Brad Seely, and Lee will challenge him this Sunday in the punt return game. He referenced how Lee had such a strong leg he sometimes outkicks his coverage. This season it has felt like that has not really been as big an issue. As great as Lee has played, he has also been helped by an excellent coverage unit. He can get the big, booming kick that goes past coverage when he is deep in his own territory, but he also can get the deep kick that is still well-covered.
The Browns have had their share of offensive struggles in 2011, and one way they can try to negate that is putting together big time special teams plays. The 49ers have built much of their success around shortening the field for their offense. They'll need to prevent the Browns from doing the same thing. It's an obvious statement, but that does not make it any less important. Shortened fields can give an offense additional confidence. There is really no need for that this Sunday.