CLEVELAND - One week after declaring their offense fixed, the Cleveland Browns were big-time broken yesterday.
The Browns self-destructed with five turnovers, failed to score on three tries from the Pittsburgh 1-yard line and had a punt return for a touchdown called back because of a penalty.
The Steelers, meanwhile, offered little on offense be-sides Jerome Bettis, but were turnover-free. That was the difference in Pittsburgh's 13-6 victory before 73,658 fans at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Consider that Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox passed for just 73 yards and endured two quarters - the first and third - with nary a completion, yet went away a winner.
“Plain and simple, we gave it away,” said receiver Dennis Northcutt.
“We moved it up and down the field,” said quarterback Kelly Holcomb. “And what did it get us? Six points. It got us nothing.”
The Browns put together two first-half drives, but settled for field goals on each occasion.
Their five second-half possessions were ended by, in order, a Pittsburgh goal-line stand, an interception in the end zone, a fumble at the Steelers 28-yard line, a third-down sack and an interception.
A week after having two wide receivers break loose for 100-yard games in a 44-point outburst against Arizona, 16 of Holcomb's 25 completions went to running backs and tight ends.
“[Pittsburgh's] schemes forced us to dump the ball underneath coverage,” Cleveland coach Butch Davis said. “It was how the reads went.”
And it wasn't why the Browns lost.
Indeed, they had enough offense to do the job. They out-gained the Steelers 303-168.
But the closer they got to pay dirt, the more inept the Browns became.
The greatest, or worst, example came on the opening drive of the second half when the Browns drove 76 yards to the Pittsburgh 1 and faced second down. Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell twice stuffed James Jackson for no gain, then the Browns tried a double reverse on fourth down, handing off to Quincy Morgan who in turned dished the ball off to Northcutt.
“[Linebacker Joey] Porter and one of their defensive backs went wide, so I turned it inside,” Northcutt said. “I liked my chances. I thought I'd get in.”
He was hit by cornerback Chad Scott and tried to extend the ball over the goal line as he was going down. The officials ruled it was not a touchdown and referee Walt Coleman upheld the call after a challenge by the Browns.
“There was a lot of time. Sure, we could have kicked a field goal and been within 10-9, but we had a great chance and we needed to get the ball in the end zone, get the lead and get the crowd into it,” Davis said. “It was a take off of a play we've scored on many times in the last 21/2 years. I don't second-guess the call.
“We just didn't play well enough in the red zone. When you get it down there and knock on the door, you have to come away with seven points. And you can't turn the ball over five times the way we did and expect to win in this league.”
After taking over at its 1-yard line, Pittsburgh failed to move the ball and a subsequent punt put the Browns in control at the Steelers 41. Behind Holcomb completions to Jackson and Andre Davis, the drive reached the 6 before Holcomb, under pressure from Pittsburgh's James Farrior, tried to force a pass to Davis that was intercepted by Brent Alexander in the end zone.
“I should have thrown it away and settled for the field goal, but we were being 3-pointed to death and I probably tried too hard to get it in the end zone,” Holcomb said.
The Browns' next drive died at the Pittsburgh 28 when Jackson, who rushed for 94 yards, fumbled the ball away. Cleveland's last chance ended when Holcomb's pass toward Davis was picked off by Scott.
“Cleveland was running curl routes underneath all day,” Scott said. “I just played possum outside, then cut to the ball.”
Another Jackson fumble, this recovered by Farrior at the Cleveland 17 midway through the second quarter, led to the game's only touchdown. A pretty play-action fake produced the score when Maddox hit tight end Mark Bruener from one yard out.
It was one of only nine completions for Maddox, who was more productive simply handing the ball off to Bettis, who produced a season-high 94 yards on 24 carries.
The outcome left both teams at 4-7 and tied for last place in the AFC North.
“We didn't get the job done today and we took a big step backwards,” said Cleveland linebacker Brant Boyer.41.50436 -81.69046