BEREA - Darnell Dinkins expects to be a busy man during kickoff returns the rest of the season.
"I`ve got a football magnet in my cast," he said Wednesday. "If I were a coach, I`d kick to me, too."
Especially when the alternative is Joshua Cribbs.
"What I`ve seen, you prefer to kick away from him," Ravens coach Brian Billick said in a conference call. "He has the ability to run through a tackle and get to a hole with excellent acceleration."
Cribbs has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this year (four in his three-year career) and is second in the league behind the Jets` Leon Washington with a 32.4-yard average. He put the league on high alert with 90- and 100-yard returns Sunday vs. Pittsburgh.
"He`s a great weapon," Dinkins said. "Guys blocking for him have just got to make sure we uphold our end. We`ve got to try to get it to Josh so he can make great plays like he did this week."
Dinkins is a reserve tight end who`s forged a six-year career with his play on special teams. The cast on his hand is one reason he`s fielded five kickoffs this year, but Cribbs is the primary one. Teams would rather kick to Dinkins near the 20-yard line than Cribbs at the goal line.
After Cribbs` 90-yard return to the 3-yard line, Pittsburgh tried to avoid him. Dinkins fielded three kickoffs, as the Steelers chose to go with low bouncers (squib kicks) or short popups (sky kicks). Dinkins let one of the bouncers go through, and Cribbs returned in 100 yards after muffing it.
"Once he does get past that first coverage level, something kicks in about him that says, â€˜I have a chance to go and I`m going to make the most of it,`" coach Romeo Crennel said.
"Everybody in the NFL is always looking for a guy like Josh Cribbs," center Hank Fraley said.
The Browns rank first in the NFL in average field position following a kickoff, starting at the 33.9-yard line. The Jets are second at 32.7.
"The goal of the team is to be the best that they can be and do everything they can to help the team win," Crennel said. "To be in the top of the NFL says that they`re doing some things right."
The success has its downside. Cribbs is resigned to the fact that he may never see a normal kickoff again this year.
"It`s very frustrating," he said. "We`re forced to revamp our game plan totally on special teams. We`re no longer expecting deep kicks.
"(Teams) are sacrificing field position just to stop me. That just lets us know that our kickoff return unit is doing a great job."
Crennel said there`s not much the Browns can do to counter the squib kicks and sky kicks. He said the upbacks like Dinkins could lateral to Cribbs, but that`s a dangerous option. Instead, the Browns will likely accept the good field position that comes from kicking short.
"You just catch the football and get as much as you can get," Crennel said. "It gives you decent field position because you`re generally around the 35-yard line."
Cribbs said he doesn`t want his teammates to turn and pitch it to him, but on a kickoff Sunday he anticipated the short kick and was standing right behind Dinkins when he caught it. The upbacks should be more aware.
"If I can get it to him somehow, someway, I will," Dinkins said.
Cribbs and Washington are the leading contenders for the kick returner spot on the AFC Pro Bowl roster. Cribbs also returns punts (9.8 average on 12 returns) and is on the coverage units, totaling 12 tackles. He feels he`s worthy of the Pro Bowl, but thinks a lack of further opportunities could hurt his stats and chances of heading to Honolulu.
"Voters don`t take that into account," he said.
Crennel is more concerned with Cribbs` impact on the Browns` fortunes.
"He`s still helping the team, even though he doesn`t have the ball in his hands," he said. "When he does get it in his hands he has the opportunity to help the team more because he gets it to midfield or into the end zone. That`s a big swing."
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.