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Published: Monday, 10/6/2003

'Complete' Couch picks apart Steelers defense

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

PITTSBURGH - The Cleveland Browns exorcized the demons of last season's playoff collapse at Heinz Field and snapped a six-game losing streak against Pittsburgh last night.

Quarterback Tim Couch, who was simply brilliant in the first half, passed for two touchdowns and ran for another in a 33-13 victory over the Steelers.

In an AFC wild-card game in January, Cleveland quarterback Kelly Holcomb passed for 429 yards, but the Browns gave up three fourth-quarter touchdowns and lost 36-33.

Couch, who started last night for the second straight week while Holcomb recovers from leg and ankle injuries, didn't duplicate those January numbers, but he was more than good enough to produce a victory, completing 20 of 25 passes for 208 yards.

“That was probably my most complete game, especially when you consider the opponent and that we pretty much had our backs to the wall,” Couch said. “We were sharp all week long and couldn't wait to play. I thought the offensive line play would be the key and I was right. I thought if we blocked them, we would have some opportunities downfield. We were on all cylinders. We moved the ball consistently and made big plays in the passing and running games.”

Browns running back William Green backed Couch's effort with a career-high 33 carries for 115 yards as Cleveland rolled up a 324-209 edge in total offense.

“We had playmakers making plays on both sides of the ball,” Browns coach Butch Davis said.

Cleveland converted on seven of 13 third-down plays. Pittsburgh was one of nine as quarterback Tommy Maddox, the AFC passing yardage leader entering the game, was 11-of-24 for just 136 yards.

Couch missed on just one pass attempt - an intentional throw-away through the end zone - and had two touchdown passes and one scoring run as the Browns cruised to a 23-10 halftime lead.

It became 30-10 just 51/2 minutes into the second half when Cleveland cornerback Daylon McCutcheon disguised his coverage, picked off a Maddox pass and went the distance - 75 yards - for a touchdown.

It was the seventh interception thrown this season by Maddox and the third to be returned for a score. He later surrendered an eighth pick to Browns free safety Earl Little.

That and a porous pass defense are the key reasons Pittsburgh, a preseason AFC title favorite in the minds of many, is off to a 2-3 start. The Browns, who play host to Oakland next Sunday, improved to 2-3. Baltimore, which had an open date on the schedule, leads the AFC North with a 2-2 mark.

Couch was nearly perfect as the Browns scored on their first three possessions. After throwing a touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson to put the Browns ahead 16-3, Couch was 9-of-10 for 112 yards and two TDs.

The first came at the end of the game's opening drive, a 10-play, 81-yard push that included completions of 23 yards to Andre Davis, 18 yards to Dennis Northcutt and 32 yards to Quincy Morgan.

The Northcutt completion was a juggling act. Both he and Steelers strong safety Mike Logan got their hands on the ball, but Northcutt maintained his concentration to pull in the tipped pass.

Couch made it 6-0 with a six-yard flip to Davis, who came out of the slot uncovered.

Phil Dawson followed with a 19-yard field goal after defensive end Courtney Brown single-handedly created a takeaway - he stripped and recovered the ball on a sack - that put the Browns in business at the Steelers' 20.

Pittsburgh got on the board after Northcutt foolishly tried to field a bouncing punt. Northcutt touched the ball, but didn't control it and the Steelers recovered at the Cleveland 21. Jeff Reed booted a 30-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter.

But it was Pittsburgh that made the next kicking game error and the Browns capitalized when the home team was flagged for being offside on the ensuing kickoff.

Davis made the Steelers pay with a 67-yard return on the re-kick, creating a short field for Cleveland's offense at the Pittsburgh 23. Couch threw to running back Green for five yards, to Northcutt for six, and then had all day to throw on a first-and-goal play before locating Johnson in the back right corner of the end zone. Dawson's extra point was blocked.



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