Sweet 16 bash

Andrew Hawkins

Only Reggie Wayne and Brandon Marshall have more catches than Cincinnati's Andrew Hawkins among NFL wide receivers and yet Hawkins's next most important task may involve defense.

Of course, that's the way it really should be in this AFC North version of a Sweet 16 party when the Bengals open the Paul Brown Stadium season Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Browns. Both No. 16s got here the hard way doing the grimy, underbelly basics of the game in special teams. Undrafted, undervalued, unknown, Hawkins and Joe Cribbs meet Sunday in the unmatchup after very nearly becoming teammates in Cleveland.

Coming off a career-high eight catches for 86 yards in Baltimore on Monday night, the 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins is emerging into a big role from scrimmage early in his second season after making just 23 catches as a rookie.

Cribbs started his eighth season last Sunday against the Eagles right where he always is as a perennial Pro Bowl special-teamer and the NFL's career leader with eight kickoff return touchdowns. A 39-yarder has him fourth in kick returns and a 23-yarder put him fourth in punt returns.

"What a special player he is," Hawkins said Wednesday. "It's hard to believe the guy played quarterback in college. He's so big (6-1, 215) and he runs hard, always running downhill. I don't know if you can stop him."

Hawkins had a hand in containing Cribbs back in November during the Bengals 23-20 win over the Browns when every little bit mattered. As a gunner on punts and a middle man on kicks, Hawkins helped the Bengals hem in Cribbs on their way to finishing in the NFL's top 10 covering both punts and kicks.

"It's going to take more than one guy to stop him and we've got a bunch of dedicated guys on special teams," Hawkins said. "Dan (Skuta), Jeromy (Miles), Vinnie Rey, Brian Leonard, Ced Peerman, the list goes on. As long as Dan is back there, I feel good about things. He's our general."

Also that day Hawkins converted a third-and-19 with a vintage 19-yard second-effort job and he figures to get even more double-duty Sunday. In Baltimore he played 33 snaps at receiver as well as 10 on special teams.

"Whatever the coaches want," Hawkins said. "I've still got the mindset I had coming into the league: Whatever I have to do to stay here."

While Hawkins's role is expanding, Cribbs, the former Kent State quarterback, appears to be getting back to his early career form with the Browns cutting back his snaps at receiver. Like Hawkins, Cribbs is the first guy downfield covering kicks and, like Cribbs, Hawkins got his first NFL shot with the Browns.

Hawkins, a freshman who wasn't playing when Toledo played Kent in Cribbs's senior season, almost became his teammate on a couple of occasions.

As one of 50 undrafted players the Browns invited to rookie minicamp after the 2008 draft, Hawkins impressed enough that Cleveland mulled signing him over the next three weeks before the Browns went with a linebacker whose name Hawkins couldn't quite place Wednesday. The Browns may not have given him a contract, but they gave Hawkins what turned out to be money in the form of the minicamp tapes.

The tapes helped Hawkins get on a reality TV show that nearly won him a spot on the Cowboys training camp roster in a national run that helped him get to Montreal in Canada's CFL.

"I thank God for the opportunity they gave me," Hawkins said. "Inadvertently it helped me get to where I am today. It helped me get to a number of places and this is one of them. The reality show and the Browns film."

Artrell Hawkins, the former Bengals cornerback, remembers how Andrew "sold himself" with those tapes. Big brother helped, too. In August 2008, Hawkins retired from the Jets, but not before telling general manager Mike Tannenbaum that there were a lot more qualified players in the NFL and his little brother was one of them.

Artrell left, but Tannenbaum flew in Andrew for a workout in front of Jets head coach Eric Mangini. Nothing happened until Mangini got fired and he became the head coach of the Browns. The next spring Hawkins got another call from the Browns, but Montreal wouldn't let him out of his contract.

"I wasn't extremely excited about it," Hawkins said about Montreal's decision. "On the other hand, it was a good thing because they must think I'm a good player. They wanted to keep me around. And another guy on that team they let out of the contract, ended up starting (once) for the Browns that year at running back. Chris Jennings. So that gave me confidence."

Since Hawkins signed in Montreal for a year and an option, the thinking was he'd go to Cleveland after the 2009 CFL season. But he broke his ankle in the last week and the timing just wasn't right.

But on Monday, timing was everything as Hawkins came up with a virtual screensaver.

He set up the Bengals field goal to open the second half on screen passes of 14 and 11 yards and had the team's biggest play of the night off a 27-yard screen. He shook his head after the game and joked, "Can't use that anymore. Teams are going to be sitting on that now."

That's OK because Artrell, now a Bengals radio network analyst, says "the biggest misnomer about Andrew is that because he's 5-7 he's not a vertical guy, but he is."

And Andrew says, "We can run screens to any of the receivers. It's just my number was being called. Baltimore is a big pressure team and that's one of the ways to beat pressure. Short screens. Run after the catch."

But Hawkins gives it some juice the other guys don't, with the possible exception of Pro Bowler A.J. Green. And even then he probably doesn't have Hawkins's short area quickness. He certainly doesn't have Hawkins's mighty-mite height that makes him bar-of-soap slippery.

"It's hard to defend him because he can do many different things," Artrell said. "Out of the backfield, bubble screens. You don't know where he's going to be from a coverage standpoint."

If Artrell were lining up against him, here is what he would do:

"Get your hands on him. If you don't, he can have an advantage because he's short and can get hands to the face calls. But if you miss him, you can cancel Christmas because you're not going to be able to match him with quicks."

But for the unwanted, every day is Christmas. Even if he never became a Cleveland Brown.

"They gave me a chance," Andrew Hawkins said. "I guess things happen for a reason. If people knew how much I prayed for this and wanted this … ."

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