Raiders punter Shane Lechler watched film of Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs and made the following assessment:
“I’m pretty sure he’s the best we’ve faced _ ever _ in my 10 years here.”
The last time Cribbs faced the Raiders, he returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown with the Browns trailing 16-0, with Cleveland climbing back into the game and losing 26-24 when Tommy Kelly blocked a field goal in the final seconds.
Two more came last week against the Chiefs, with returns of 100 and 103 yards for touchdowns contributing to a 41-34 win.
Cribbs, in his fifth year out of Kent State, has eight kickoff returns for touchowns plus a pair of scores on punts. He’s averaging 27.8 yards per kickoff return this season and 13.3 yards on punts with one touchdown. In his spare time, he lines up as a wide receiver, wildcat quarterback and plays on coverage units.
Lechler, however, has no plans to avoid Cribbs. Mindful of how the Raiders shut down an equally hot returner in Week 10 of the 2007 season in Chicago’s Devin Hester, he’ll kick it deep and trust his teammates to cover.
Hester finished his day in Oakland with six punt returns for 14 yards and a pair of kickoff returns for 34, the bright spot in a 17-6 loss to the Bears.
So the Raiders have no plans to back down and kick for the sideline.
“We’re going to do exactly what we did to Hester, what we did to Dante Hall four years ago when he was at Kansas City,” Lechler said. “ When you do that, it goes to show that you don’t trust your guys. I’m willing to put my guys up against anybody. I like my guys. My punt team is outstanding, they play their butt off every Sunday.”
Said Isaiah Ekejiuba: “Shane is not a directional punter. He’s going to let the ball go, and we’re going to go down and cover the way we need to cover.”
And this from Sam Williams: “On special teams, we’re not afraid of any challenge, we don’t back down, we kick to anybody, we have the best kicker in the league and we feel like we have one of the best cover teams in the league.”
Cribbs, talking to Bay Area writers by conference call, was happy to hear the news.
“If that’s true, then they’ve got egos and we’ve got to prove it to them like we’ve got to prove it to everybody else,” Cribbs said.
Cribbs patterned his game after former Redskins return specialist Brian Mitchell, who finished his career with an NFL record 13 special teams touchdowns. Lechler said Cribbs is the most fearless punt return specialist in the game, noting an absurdly low total of three fair catches.
“I love it when (the other team) is in my face because that means once I get past the first window, the first couple of guys, then I’m out in the open,” Cribbs said. “You know, get past that first wave, chances are really high for me to take it to the end zone.”
In terms of style, Cribbs, 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, is nothing like Hester (5-foot-11, 190) and more like Mitchell, who was 5-11, 221. He’s bigger than Hester, not as fast, but more physical and excels in bad weather.
“He’s doing now is what Devin Hester did a couple years ago, but in a very different way,” Ekejiuba said. “He has great vision. He sees where the holes are, it’s like he guesses where the holes are and he hits them before they even form. That’s what makes him so good.
“He gets to places where a lot of returners can’t do, and he breaks a lot of tackles.”
More to come . . .