Steelers don#039;t expect anything different from Browns

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 4, 2003

PITTSBURGH - No, that breeze blowing across Lake Erie wasn't a sigh of relief emanating from Pittsburgh because Kelly Holcomb won't start at quarterback Sunday night for Cleveland.

Holcomb, making only his fourth career start, passed for 429 yards - the third most in NFL playoff history - at Heinz Field in January. Only the greatest postseason comeback in Steelers' history, from a 24-7 deficit to a last-gasp 36-33 victory, prevented the first playoff loss in franchise history to the rival Browns.

''I still remember them throwing the ball all over the field and us trying to chase it down,'' said safety Mike Logan, who played so much he damaged two knee ligaments and missed the season-ending loss at Tennessee a week later.

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But while the Steelers (2-2) could be forgiven for openly rooting Holcomb's sprained left ankle would sideline him for a second straight week, they insist they're not celebrating because Tim Couch will start.

''Really, they're both starters, so I don't think it makes that much of a difference,'' Logan said. ''Holcomb may have a little stronger arm and he seems to get rid of the ball a little quicker. Couch is a former No. 1 pick, he's been a starter and I'm pretty sure he's ready to take advantage of this opportunity.''

Couch won his first two starts against Pittsburgh but has lost his last four, including a 16-13 overtime decision on Sept. 29, 2002. Tommy Maddox come off the bench to rally Pittsburgh from a 13-6 deficit in the fourth quarter, the first of three Steelers victories over Cleveland by three-point margins last season.

Couch's 325 yards in his two 2002 starts against Pittsburgh don't match Holcomb's one-game production in January, and Couch likely won't bring the level of confidence Holcomb surely would have possessed.

''But I don't think anybody doubts themselves,'' Couch said. ''We're preparing like we're going to go out there and win this game.''

And, he said, ''Teams have had some success throwing against them,'' a reference to Steve McNair's three touchdown passes in Tennessee's 30-13 victory at Pittsburgh last week.

Still, there's some question whether the Browns (1-3) have fully recovered from that playoff loss. Former Browns defensive coordinator Foge Fazio, now out of coaching, still bristles at coach Butch Davis' decision to call off his attacking defense and settle into a prevent defense during Pittsburgh's comeback. It may be one reason why the two parted ways after last season.

''The biggest thing was we weren't as aggressive as we were in the first half,'' defensive end Kenard Lang said. ''That was the reason they came back and won. We just let them sit back there and throw the ball. We didn't blitz nearly as much.''

Since that loss, the Browns have yet to score more than 14 points and they're coming off a 21-14 loss at home to Cincinnati.

Despite the switch from Holcomb to Couch, the Steelers still expect the Browns to do what they did Jan. 4 - spread the field and force them to play man-to-man coverage against Cleveland's four talented receivers.

''Regardless of who the quarterback is, they are going to be throwing the ball down the field against us with some play action,'' coach Bill Cowher said. ''They spread it out. They have some guys that can run after the catch with Dennis Northcutt, Kevin Johnson, Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis. I think those four are as good as any quartet of receivers in the league.''

Both teams are having trouble running the ball, with the Browns ranking only 29th and the Steelers 23rd. Cleveland's William Green, who had some big games at the end of last season, averages only 3.2 yards a carry and has been held below 50 yards the last two weeks.

But Browns-Steelers games - and this will be the 101st regular-season meeting in the series - rarely need subplots to make them interesting. The one rule: the Steelers usually win in Pittsburgh, where Cleveland has dropped four straight, counting the playoffs, and 27 of 32.

The Steelers want to avoid yet another poor start that could endanger their playoff chances; last year's 1-3 start eventually forced them to play the wild-card game against Cleveland. The Browns know they can't afford to fall three games under .500 only five games into the season.

''We have to win this game to stay in the hunt,'' said Couch, who has won his last five road starts.

''We've got to try to get this thing going and try to get on a roll here pretty soon, or it's not going to be good for us,'' Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said.