CLEVELAND — Both Bengals cover teams in the kicking game were in the NFL's top 10 last season and they came in ranked fourth covering punts this year until a familiar foe caused havoc Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium and turned the tide in Cincinnati's 34-24 loss.
Neither offense was doing much in the second half and if the Bengals could make it a two-score game with their 14-7 lead, it looked like that would be enough against the young Browns. But Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs gave the crowd life with his longest punt return ever against the Bengals, a controversial 60-yarder early in the third quarter.
It took Cribbs eight seasons to pop one that long against the Bengals, although he had a 50-yarder against them here in 2009, and it came off a terrific punt by Kevin Huber that he caught near the sideline at the Bengals 10.
Except the Bengals thought Cribbs called for a fair catch and gunner Jeromy Miles ran by him.
"I think everybody thought it was a fair catch," Miles said. "It was one of those bang-bang plays."
Linebacker Vincent Rey said he also thought he saw Cribbs wave his hand and slowed up for an instant. Cribbs caught it, split linebackers Manny Lawson and Roddrick Muckelroy up the sideline, and was gone until Miles sprinted back and dragged him down.
That put the ball on the Cincinnati 30 and set up Phil Dawson's 41-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-10. But more importantly, the return gave the Browns and the crowd life.
"He caused dysfunction on one play," said linebacker Dan Skuta, who said the entire punt team thought it had been a fair catch. "But that doesn't make any excuses. You've got to get him and take care of business. That's why he's the best. He makes plays like that. You have to be ready against him every single play."
Maybe just as big was Cribbs's 44-yard kick return after the Bengals had cut the lead to 20-17 with 11:11 left in the game. That set up a three-minute TD drive that was really the final nail. Last year he nearly got the Browns a win in the season opener with a 51-yarder against the Bengals and this year he's got the two longest kick returns against them with 44 and 38 yards.
"We did let Cribbs out of there on two big plays and it ended up being eventually the field position plays that killed us and you can't do that against him," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "When we relax on him, we think that he has made a signal for fair catch and then we let him out on the kickoff after we scored."
Forget quarterback Brandon Weeden's 71-yard strike to Josh Gordon in the first quarter and his 23-yard throw to someone named Jordan Cameron in the fourth quarter. Without those two returns, Browns head coach Pat Shurmur may not have broken the 11-game losing streak.
"His returns are a huge spark. God knows what's going to happen when Cribbs has the ball in his hands, especially on punt returns," Shurmur said. "We talk about whether he plays offense or not, but when he's out there and the field is wide and there's bodies all over the place he just has a unique ability to make plays. He did the same thing in coverage. His presence on the field on special teams is not undervalued in my mind and his punt returns; of course, his kick returns did give us a jump."
BACKUP BONANZA: Backup Browns running back Montario Hardesty came out of nowhere for his first 15 carries of the season for 56 yards and gave the Browns a huge lift in the second half after rookie running back Trent Richardson went to the bench with a rib injury. The Bengals had smothered Richardson for 37 yards on 14 carries, but Hardesty looked like Jim Brown.
Left end Robert Geathers saw no difference in scheme.
"He ran hard in there," he said.
Hardesty pounded for 23 yards on three straight runs and it set up Cameron's 10th catch of the season and his longest gain of the season. Weeden went play-action and had so much time he must have felt like he was back on a minor-league mound and was able to find the tight end.
"We were in a running formation; it was obviously a heavy play-action throw, and it's a deep cross concept where the quarterback makes a decision: if it's open down the field take it," Shurmur said. "But otherwise we want to end the play with a first down, so there are checkdowns spaced out. Jordan actually, from what I heard, this is just off the headsets, I couldn't quite see it, but he fell down then got back up and made that play. It was a good job."