Josh Cribbs backs former teammate

BEREA, Ohio -- The NFL is demanding that Steelers linebacker James Harrison and others stop using their helmets as weapons.

And although he was the victim of Harrison's viciousness, Browns wide receiver Joshua Cribbs had a softer message for Pittsburgh's enforcer: "Don't change you."

"You're a player, so play," Cribbs said he told Harrison, his former Kent State teammate and close friend. "Let refs ref. Let the NFL administration, let everyone do their jobs. If you get fined, just try to tailor yourself, but play the game. Don't try to change who you are."

Cribbs returned to practice Friday for the first time since suffering a concussion when he was knocked out last Sunday by Harrison, who moments later flattened Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi with a blow that earned him a $75,000 fine.

Massaquoi has not yet been cleared by Cleveland's medical staff and is unlikely to play Sunday at New Orleans.

Cribbs, who said he hasn't experienced any concussion-related symptoms since Monday, believes he will be ready to face the Saints.

This weekend, the league will be watching closely for head-high hits following a rash of nasty shots last weekend that resulted in commissioner Roger Goodell promising to impose tougher penalties against players who lead with their helmets on tackles.

Harrison, one of the primary offenders cited by the league, was so upset by the crackdown that he considered retirement. While some of his Pittsburgh teammates didn't take Harrison seriously, Cribbs did and urged him to stay in the game.

Cribbs knows that Harrison lowered his helmet to deliver a knockout blow.

It comes with the territory.

"In the game, you're not saying, 'Oh, I'm not going to hurt this guy or I'm not going to hit him like this'," Cribbs said. "He's like a heat-seeking missile. I have the football and he's targeting on me. He's not like, 'I've got to hit him properly, let me aim at his legs.' He's just trying to get me down any means possible. And I would do the same. I came at people like that as well, heat-seeking missiles."

Cribbs believes he had an impact on Harrison's decision to return to the field after a one-day absence to consider his future.

"I think it meant a lot for him to hear me tell him, 'Hey man, go out there and play and ball out.' And I told him as well, 'Remember, we play ya'll again, so don't think I forgot. We're boys off the field, but when we step on that field, I don't know you, dog'."

Cribbs said he didn't suffer any memory loss from the Harrison hit, which came after the Browns' Pro Bowler took off on a running play out of the wildcat formation. As he neared the line of scrimmage, Cribbs was being wrapped up by Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley when Harrison came flying in from the side.

The league said the shot was legal -- a claim the Browns dispute -- and Cribbs found it within reasonable limits as well.

"I had the ball and was going down and he came in to clean me up," Cribbs said. "It's his job to try to put me out of the game. If I was a linebacker, you try to knock guys out. That's what linebackers try to do for the most part. You have to follow the rules, but that's their job."

Harrison was branded a villain by Cleveland fans, and he became the poster child this week for the league's attempt to reduce head injuries.

Browns center Alex Mack said Harrison was using his helmet the entire game -- and not just on the publicized hits that rocked Cribbs and Massaquoi.

"If you watch the game film, [Harrison] was doing that to everyone on every play," Mack told The Associated Press. "People would be on the ground and he would try to spear them. There's a play on film where [running back] Peyton Hillis is tackled and he comes up and spears him. It's like you're being cheap, you're being dirty."

Cribbs said he respects Mack's opinion, but that if Harrison wore an orange helmet and not the Steelers' black and gold, the perception would be different.

"If [Harrison] played for our team we'd be applauding his efforts," Cribbs said. "I'm just trying to be honest. If he were on our team we'd be rallying behind him, just like his team is doing for him. He plays to knock people out. Wouldn't you want a linebacker like that on your team?"

Cribbs won't change his game because of the league's stricter stance on helmet hits. He believes last weekend's rash of hard knocks around the league was "a fluke."

He appreciates what's being done to protect players' safety, but wonders if the league hasn't gone too far, too quickly.

"They're making the right strides in trying to protect players but at the same time, the NFL's walking a fine line between just changing the game and changing players' abilities," he said. "This is the NFL. Everybody can't play and everybody's not able to play. You have to be able to take these hits and get up. That's why we get paid the way we do. It's a tough sport."