Updated: 7:20 p.m.
As Cincinnati's Kevin Huber heads into one of his biannual epics with the remarkable Browns return man Josh Cribbs this Sunday in Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), both are on top of their games.
Huber, in his fourth season, is the only punter in the NFL this season to have as many as 11 inside-the-20 punts with no touchbacks and the 11-0 differential is third best in the league. Cribbs, in his eighth season, is the NFL leader in kickoff returns for touchdowns and he's back at it again. His 74-yarder last week against the Giants wasn't a TD, but it boosted him to third in the league. He's also sixth in punt returns with a long of 27 and that's where Huber comes in.
"I'd rather not punt to him at all," special teams coach Darrin Simmons said after Thursday's practice. "If we have to kick off to him, at least that means we've scored. I'd rather kick than punt any time."
In the last three games Huber, with the help of gunners Andrew Hawkins and Jeromy Miles, has uncorked big-time punts in the fourth quarter to either bury wins or give the Bengals a great shot to win the game.
Last week with the Bengals trailing, 17-13, early in the fourth, Huber sailed one from the Dolphins 42 and got a great hustle play from Miles to keep it from going into the end zone when he batted it to the 3.
The week before in Jacksonville with the Bengals in command, 27-10, Huber stifled any hope when he dropped a 36-yarder on the 4 downed by Hawkins. And three weeks ago with the Bengals holding a 38-31 lead in Washington with 1:47 left, Huber doused the dangerous Robert Griffin III when he hit a 39-yarder that Hawkins tracked down at the 2. With no timeouts, not even Subway Man could go 98 yards in 1:47.
"He makes it easy for us; Kevin is one of the best punters in the NFL," Hawkins said. "It's more Kevin than us."
Huber would beg to differ and has noticed that after a successful fake punt in Jacksonville on fourth-and-one, punt return teams are no longer doubling Hawkins and Miles on the outside.
"That means there are going to be more rushes, so it's going to press our protection a little more and leave the gunners more open. It's kind of give and take," Huber said. "Jeromy and Hawk do a great job getting down there and keeping it out of the end zone."
Huber expected the Dolphins to pressure and move people around so they would get some heat and they did much of the day. Huber struggled a few times in the face of it and once offered a 25-yard shank when he said he didn't follow through on the kick into the pressure.
Now with Cribbs standing back there Sunday, the Bengals can't afford a miss hit. Thinking of the precious inside-the-20 darts, Simmons said, "I hope everyone is like that. Any time the returner doesn't touch the ball in that situation, it's good."
Huber keeps it pretty simple. When he's kicking near midfield, "I don't want to get too greedy," he said. That means instead of trying to put it on the 5 and risk a touchback, he shoots for the 15 or the 10.
"The offense still has to get an extra first down to score a touchdown than if they get it at the 20," Huber said.
He also says his idea of the perfect punt remains a 45-yarder that goes out of bounds. That's going to be extremely important against Cribbs.
"I always directionally kick it. The boundary acts as an extra defender," Huber said. "You can't have a miss hit down the middle of the field. This is the one guy that can make you pay for it."
A few weeks ago in Cleveland's Thursday night loss at Baltimore, Cribbs suffered a frightening knockout when linebacker Dannell Ellerbe knocked off his helmet and Cribbs lost consciousness when his head bounced off the turf. He was out for a few sickening moments, but Simmons said, with much admiration, there has been no sign of it.
"He's playing with a great deal of confidence. I can see by the way he's running," Simmons said. "He's running hard, he's running aggressive. He doesn't go down easy. That's patented Josh Cribbs. That hit didn't affect him."
Last month it was Bengals punt returner Adam Jones that stole Cribbs's thunder when he took the Sept. 16 game's first punt 81 yards for a touchdown while Cribbs had one return for nine yards. Hawkins had one special teams tackle, but also found time to rip open the game from scrimmage in the fourth quarter with his first NFL touchdown on a 50-yard catch-and-run.
Cribbs did hurt the Bengals once returning kickoffs with a 38-yarder. But even though Hawkins has 20 catches as the regular slot man, he hasn't flinched continuing his role as a key special teams cover man.
"Hawkins hasn't changed," Simmons said. "We've rested him and taken him off some things. But he knows that's what got him here and ultimately that will keep him here."
Simmons is looking for the same kind of effort he got last week. He said the two Huber punts that got challenged against the Dolphins were "the two closest review plays I've seen in my years of football."
The first one came in the first quarter when rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict heard his sideline scream as he raced down to cover, "He touched it, he touched it," and he corralled the ball as he slid out of bounds at the Miami 26.
That play held up and so did Miles's play in the fourth quarter.
"Unbelievable effort play by Jeromy to keep the ball out of the end zone," Simmons said.
DRE LIKES IT UNDER THE RADAR: Dre Kirkpatrick feels good. But he's going to keep it to himself.
"I'm just going to play my role," Kirkpatrick said before Thursday's practice.
Kirkpatrick, Cincinnati's first draft pick, has strapped it up for the past week in practice at cornerback and says, "The knee feels good, there is no problem, mentally I'm good."
He'd love to say he's ready to go and he's chomping at the bit and all that stuff now that he's fully practicing, but he's going to let head coach Marvin Lewis tell him when he's ready to play.
Kirkpatrick may be full go now. And he says his body feels good and is bouncing back the way it should. He says he's a little sore but only because "I haven't done much." But this is a guy that had only about seven practices all spring and summer before he returned to the field last Wednesday. Lewis said last month he wants Kirkpatrick to get plenty of football before he plays in his first NFL game and indicated that won't be until after the Oct. 28 bye against the Broncos at PBS Nov. 4 at the earliest.
"I don't want to be too over-aggressive. I don't want to bring attention to myself," Kirkpatrick said. "I just want to be a good player and wait my turn."
Kirkpatrick simply doesn't want to get into any kind of public debate about when he'll be back without taking a snap.
"I don't want to say something and have the fans think I'm going to be something I'm not," he said. "That builds a dark cloud over you. Now you're not fighting to just get on the field, you're fighting all those other things. I just want to keep myself plain and try not to say too much."
Mission accomplished. But he allowed a smile when told he must be itching to get into a game.
"What do you think?" he asked.
Kirkpatrick was out there again Thursday listed as full go and cornerback Terence Newman (groin) returned after sitting out Wednesday and was listed as limited. But the Bengals are still looking to line up all their DBs in one practice. Adam Jones (back) was listed as limited, as was cornerback Jason Allen (quad). Defensive end/SAM backer Dontay Moch (illness) was the only other Bengal not on the field. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee) was limited but wide receiver A.J. Green (knee) was upgraded to full after being limited Wednesday.
RAVING ABOUT GENO: The Bengals defensive line is gettlng love from Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress. Four days after playing the Super Bowl champs' formidable front, Childress said Thursday via a tweet from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot: "Bengals are a more talented d-line rt now than Giants line...Geno Atkins might be as high a motor guy as we've faced."
BROWNS REPORT: The Browns got good news Thursday when middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (concussion) practiced for the first time since he exited the Giants loss last Sunday. One account had the Giants racking up more than half their 243 rushing yards after Jackson left. He was listed as limited and the thinking in Cleveland is he'll play now that he's back on the field.
Defensve tackle Ahtyba Rubin (calf) always among the leading tacklers among interior NFL players, missed his second straight practice and it doesn't look good for him to play. Same with starting cornerback Dimitri Patterson (ankle), who is not expected to play.
Starting wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring) and backup Jordan Norwood (foot) didn't practice and the Browns practiced with just three healthy receivers. Word is Cleveland may have to activate rookie free agent Josh Cooper, Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden's second favorite target at Oklahoma State.
The Rubin injury figures to put former Bengals right end Frostee Rucker on the field more. Rubin is a three-down player and Rucker has been playing mainly on first and second down. But Rucker's injured shoulder is better and the Browns can put him at tackle on passing downs while Juqua Parker goes to end.
The Browns seem to have a matchup problem in the secondary with Patterson out. All indications are rookie Trevin Wade or backup Buster Skrine would have to play slot corner on Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. In his first NFL game last month Wade gave up Hawkins's 50-yard touchdown catch and Skrine doesn't have experience in the slot.