The Oakland Raiders are rebuilding, ridding their roster of overpaid players and adding cheap but quality free agents. One of them was Josh Cribbs, a former return man and wide receiver of the Cleveland Browns. Cribbs signed a one-year deal in mid-May, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, and offers the club an intriguing skill set.
Cribbs can get behind defenses on vertical routes, run inside-breaking routes and make an impact on special teams. In a way, he's exactly the type of player that teams look for.
You wouldn't have guessed that last year in Cleveland, however.
Cribbs was a non-factor with the Browns last season, registering a measly seven receptions for 63 yards and no touchdowns. He wasn't used properly and appeared to fall out of favor with the coaching staff, which followed him out the door this offseason.
In 2011, he was a factor, though. He snagged 41 passes for 518 yards and four touchdowns, looking like he was going to finally break out and become a regular in the lineup. He was used properly, running the aforementioned routes and picking apart defenses.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17 of 2011, he ran a wonderful crossing route, making an adjustment based on the defensive coverage.
It was 2nd-and-9 and the Browns had the ball at their own 35-yard line. Cribbs was lined up to the right of quarterback Colt McCoy as the single receiver. His assignment was to run a curl route, a route that is run a dozen or more yards downfield and requires the receiver to come back to the quarterback.
The route was simple, but the adjustment he would go on to make wasn't. Cribbs was double-covered ("bracketed") before the snap by cornerback William Gay and safety Troy Polamalu. The double coverage would be broken up by tight end Jordan Cameron, however.
Cameron, the in-line tight end opposite of Cribbs, ran a deep crossing route at the snap that split the seam. That forced Polamalu to leave Cribbs and cover Cameron. With Polamalu covering the tight end, Cribbs adjusted his curl route by running to the middle of the field as opposed to simply standing as his route is designed.
He took advantage of the vacant space in the middle of the field and dived to haul in a poorly thrown pass from McCoy.
The catch itself was impressive, showing the necessary body control and hands that could make the 29-year-old receiver a solid contributor to the Raiders.
It'll be up to the Raiders coaching staff to use him properly, though. The coaches in Oakland should look to use him on routes that attack the middle of the field and get him down the sideline, where he has plenty of room to turn on the jets and burn defenders.
One way to get him in space is to throw him screen passes. It's what the Browns did at times in 2011, and it worked out well.
An example of a successful screen pass came against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7, when Cribbs caught a bubble screen behind the line of scrimmage and turned it into a 20-yard gain.
Cribbs was originally lined up in the right slot of the Browns' "doubles" formation. They initially had two receivers to each side of the formation, but a quick motion signal to Cribbs changed that to three to the formation's left.
As the snap neared, he motioned across the formation and over to the left. When the ball snapped, he looped further behind the line of scrimmage and readied himself to catch the football.
Once he caught the pass, the receivers in front of him blocked the defensive backs and created an alley for him to run through. He burst through the alley, making the deep safety miss before being tackled following a 20-yard gain.
It's this kind of play that the Raiders should look to use Cribbs in when he's on the field. It is simple, yet effective; it's a high-percentage throw that plays to Cribbs' strengths.
Another way they should look to get bang for their buck is using him as a returner. Cribbs is a quality return man, having finished in the top six in average punt and kickoff return yards in 2012. Last season, he averaged 27.4 yards per kickoff return and 12 yards per punt return, per ESPN.
Three reasons he's so good at returning are his decisiveness, straight-line speed and weave ability.
Decisiveness is a significant aspect of returning kicks well. There are too many players that run east or west when returning the ball, causing them to waste time, energy and opportunities to get downfield. Cribbs doesn't have that issue, as he is quick to put his foot in the ground and run downfield.
In addition to decisiveness, Cribbs has straight-line speed. You may have not guessed it if you looked at his profile when he came out of Kent State in 2005, when he ran a 4.61 40-yard dash, but he plays much faster in pads and covers ground quickly.
Along with decisiveness and speed, Cribbs has what I like to call weave ability. He is able to make defenders miss with subtle movements that don't necessarily fully break his stride. This is one of the most underrated abilities of a returner.
The traits above should help him boost the Raiders' special teams unit, whose best returners were outside of the top 15 in punt and return average.
Overall, Cribbs' versatility as a receiver and returner hasn't gone unnoticed. There were multiple teams interested in him this offseason, but only the Raiders were able to reel him in. If he's used correctly, he can be a solid contributor to the offense and special teams unit.
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