PITTSBURGH — Joshua Cribbs was running routes as a receiver. He was taking snaps as Wildcat quarterback, for the first time without a quarterback in the huddle to call the plays. He had returned the opening kickoff 26 yards.
He was doing everything in his power to get his first road win in his favorite rivalry.
Then he was down — facedown — on the Heinz Field turf. He crumpled in a heap, causing fullback Lawrence Vickers to frantically gesture for a trainer.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison hit Cribbs helmet-to-helmet Sunday in the second quarter of Pittsburgh’s 28-10 win. Cribbs dropped the ball immediately as he went limp.
After a few minutes with players praying and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger checking closely on his former Mid-American Conference rival, Cribbs got up and walked to the sideline. His attempt to get the doctors to let him back in the game failed, so he walked to the locker room, slowing to yell back at a Steelers fan.
“He felt OK, but they have to take precautions,” said tight end Evan Moore, who suffered a concussion earlier in the year. “They have to respond the right way no matter what he’s telling them.”
Cribbs’ day was done with a concussion. Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi wasn’t far behind.
“It’s very unfortunate to see Josh and Mohammed go down the way they did,” said receiver Chansi Stuckey, who filled in with Brian Robiskie as the only healthy receivers.
Harrison knocked Massaquoi from the game with a concussion after a forearm hit to the head on a crossing pattern. Massaquoi had dropped the ball and appeared defenseless, but no flag was thrown on either play. In fact, Browns center Alex Mack was flagged 5 yards for delay of game for kicking the ball.
“When Mo comes across the center if he’s looking at me he’s telling me he’s open, so I threw him the ball,” rookie quarterback Colt McCoy said. “I was not expecting somebody to be over there, I don’t think he was, either.”
Cribbs and Massaquoi weren’t in the locker room after the game to talk to reporters. They didn’t go to a hospital and bused home with the team. Teammates said they were alert and hoped they’d be OK for next week in New Orleans.
“I never try to injure anyone, but I’m not opposed to hurting anyone,” said Harrison, who’s from Akron and a former Kent State player like Cribbs. “There’s a difference. When you’re injured, you can’t play. But when you’re hurt, you can shake it off and come back. I try to hurt people.” The Browns were upset by the lack of a penalty and the loss of their teammates. And while they said the instinct was to retaliate, no one accused Harrison of dirty play.
“Of course you want to step up your physical play,” said linebacker Matt Roth, the toughest guy on the Browns. “But you don’t want to hurt your team and get yourself a 15-yard penalty.
“The one I thought was definitely helmet- to-helmet but the ref saw it differently. It’s hard as a defensive player to try and dislodge the ball. You have to do anything in any means necessary. They’re moving targets. It’s unfortunate our guys got hurt. That’s football.”
The consensus in the locker room was that the hit on Cribbs was fine. He started the play at quarterback and wanted to throw, but tucked it and was a runner in a crowd when Harrison got him. The Massaquoi play drew more questions.
“I got fined,” safety T.J. Ward said, referring to a similar hit on Cincinnati’s Jordan Shipley that drew a flag and $15,000 penalty. “Some refs are going to call it, some refs not. That was definitely worse than the one I got fined for.”
Did he want to retaliate?
“Yeah, but you’ve got to do it within the game,” Ward said. “You just can’t be out there trying to headhunt. If it comes, then it comes. It’s not really retaliation, you just got to step up the physicality of the game.” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin defended Harrison.
“Legal hits, not fineable hits, he played good football,” he said. “James is always ready to deliver for his teammates. It’s not only delivering plays but delivering plays in a timely manner, significant plays. And he does that for us for the most part.”
The Browns missed Massaquoi at receiver, but the loss of Cribbs was devastating. He had taken three snaps in the Wildcat and it was a big part of the plan to take some of the pressure off McCoy in his first start.
“When he went down, you know you don’t have that to lean on ever,” McCoy said. “You’ve got to go out there and play.” “His presence was very well-missed,” said Vickers, who declined comment when asked if Harrison’s hits were dirty.
“It’s a big loss,” running back Peyton Hillis said.
The Browns really felt Cribbs’ absence on special teams. Stuckey made two fair catches and muffed a punt, which led to a pivotal Steelers touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“I definitely have a newfound respect for Josh and what he does,” Stuckey said. “It’s my job to catch the ball and it’s something I’ve got to go work on this week.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.