Lost in the current of the Browns' recent struggles has been a bit of a decline in the team's usually solid special teams units. A huge strength in 2009, the Browns' special teams units led the entire league in kickoff coverage, points scored and average starting field position.
Heading into the final two weeks of the season, the Browns' kick coverage units have again turned in an excellent performance, currently ranking first the league in average opponent starting field position.
However, the Browns' return game has slipped towards the bottom of the league in terms of return yardage and average, which has resulted in some consistently poor starting field position.
Of course, there's an easily identifiable reason for the kick return struggles this season - something that most Browns fans have become painfully aware of.
“I have a foot injury and I can go to work and earn the money I’m supposed to be making," Josh Cribbs said earlier this week. "People have to work for a living and there are people who have worse circumstances than me. The least I can do is go out and play.”
Cribbs has clearly not been the all-world kick returner we have seen in the past, thanks to a mid-season toe and foot injury that has hobbled him in recent weeks. The quick acceleration that has been a hallmark of Cribbs' play in recent years has been largely absent from his game. And while the recent Pro Bowler has displayed a workmanlike approach to the game - something that has endeared him to legions of Browns followers - the return game that he usually sparks has proven to be a weakness in 2010.
However, if we dig a bit deeper into last Sunday's game against Cincinnati, it becomes evident that the team's kick return problems cannot be exclusively blamed on Cribbs' ailing foot.
A quick capsule of the Browns' kickoff and punt units could read like this:
The likes of Ray Ventrone, T.J. Ward, Jason Trusnik, Mike Adams, Eric Alexander and others are extraordinarily skilled in getting downfield and wrapping up opposing returners. However, when it comes to kick return blocking, the production in 2010 has been lacking.
"For the most part, the return game needs to get some things going - just to provide a spark for the offense," explained tight end Alex Smith. "We haven't been able to get things going, for whatever reason."
Perhaps the elephant in the room - the one with the mangled toes may have something to do with it.
"Everybody knows that Josh has been banged up all season and he's a warrior, so he's going to continue to fight through, no matter how much pain he's in and how unhealthy he is," Smith said. "Everyone knows how banged up he is and it's unfortunate, because you know what great things he can do. But he's still trying to fight through those things and make plays."
Injuries aside, perhaps no better play exemplifies this decline in kick returns than one that occurred late in the first half against the Bengals. With the Browns trailing 10-7, Josh Cribbs received a kickoff and advanced to the Bengal 20 as his blocking front began to form a seal to the left. One cut later and Cribbs could have bounced to the outside for a potential big gain.
However, the play was quickly blown up as Cincinnati's Brian Leonard shot past the Browns' Jason Trusnik up the middle of the field for a clean tackle on Cribbs. Naturally, the prospect of Cribbs' reduced mobility could come into play here, but largely the opportunity for a big return was squandered by poor blocking.
Or as Smith correctly suggested, "One guy missing his block can ruin the whole return."
This trend continued for most of the afternoon, as the Browns' special teamers were never able to sustain their blocks long enough to allow Cribbs some running room. Cribbs was often boxed in behind his blockers, unable to make a direct cut towards an open return lane. This combination of cluttered return lanes and a still healing Cribbs contributed to a series of poor starting field position.
Which is something that Browns fans are not quite used to seeing.