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Published: Monday, 12/29/2008

Steelers maul Browns

BY TONY GROSSI
(CLEVELAND) PLAIN DEALER
Ben Roethlisberger is driven to the ground by Willie McGinest, right, and D'Qwell Jackson. He left the game after the play. Ben Roethlisberger is driven to the ground by Willie McGinest, right, and D'Qwell Jackson. He left the game after the play.
PETER DIANA Enlarge

PITTSBURGH - There are two ways to look at the Cleveland Browns' 31-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday.

Yippee, the season of great disappointment is over.

Now, yikes, the next rebuilding project is just beginning.

Before the game was even finished, general manager Phil Savage knew he had been fired by owner Randy Lerner.

Lerner did not attend the game. A source said Lerner was lining up interviews with Bill Cowher and other coaching candidates.

Lerner is expected to meet with coach Romeo Crennel this morning and deliver the news that he will not be retained as head coach.

The 4-12 Browns suffered their second shutout loss in a row and failed to score a touchdown by run or pass for the sixth consecutive game. That 24-quarter drought is an NFL record.

The loss was the fourth shutout for the Browns in Crennel's 64 games. Their 24-40 record under him was worse than the 25-40 four-year record posted by the Butch Davis regime, which included one playoff appearance.

In the locker room, players pledged their love and support of Crennel.

"It's been great playing for him. I have nothing but good things to say about him," said linebacker Kamerion Wimbley.

"I think it's very unfair he's taking all the blame for this year," said linebacker Andra Davis.

"You can't blame a coach for players not doing what they're told to do," said specialist Josh Cribbs.

Running back Jamal Lewis, who surpassed 1,000 yards with a 94-yard rushing performance, said, "I would hate [for Crennel to be fired]. I'd like to go out and fight for him."

All of that support, of course, fell on deaf ears after the Browns completed arguably their worst season since their expansion rebirth in 1999. After thinking they had turned the corner with a 10-6 season in 2007, they stumbled to one of the worst records in the NFL.

"I don't think anyone saw this coming," Wimbley said.

The Browns had no prayer competing with the Steelers yesterday, even after Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game with a concussion with 1:48 to play in the second quarter.

Byron Leftwich relieved

Roethlisberger and completed a 10-play drive with an eight-yard touchdown run to give the Steelers a 14-0 halftime lead.

That was insurmountable for the Browns, of course, who were relegated to starting their fourth quarterback of the season, Toledo graduate Bruce Gradkowski, who joined them only three weeks ago after being out of the NFL since July.

In a performance that will not earn him the nickname "the Polish Rifle," Gradkowski completed his first two passes of the game and then hit only 3 of his last 14 throws for one yard. For the game, Gradkowski was 5-of-16 for 18 yards and threw two interceptions, including one returned 32 yards for a touchdown by Tyrone Carter, for a passer rating of 1.0.

Running back Jerome Harrison was the team's leading receiver with two catches for minus-1 yard. Donte Stallworth, Martin Rucker, Braylon Edwards, and Charles Ali each had one catch.

"It was tough, not only trying to go against their defense but our offense at the same time, considering I haven't been with them too long," Gradkowski said. "We were doing some things good on offense for a while."

The only scoring chance the Browns had was a 53-yard field goal try by Phil Dawson that drifted wide left in the first quarter. Crennel disdained going for the first down on fourth-and-3 from the Steelers' 36.

The Browns' 126 offensive yards were not among the franchise's five-lowest outputs of all time, according to the team media guide.

"We're down to our fourth quarterback. What did you expect?" exclaimed Cribbs, who threw two passes and completed one - his first official completion in an NFL game.

Despite their 11th loss in a row to the Steelers and 17th in the last 18 meetings, Cribbs maintained the gap between the teams was "like this," he said, holding his forefinger and thumb about an inch apart.

"If you think it's big, you're crazy," Cribbs said.

Punter Dave Zastudil said, "I just know we have the potential to bounce back next year. Four-and-12 should be all the motivation you need. We've got to get that fight back in us."

Roethlisberger was injured just before halftime when he was knocked to the ground by linebackers Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson and his head bounced off the turf.

After being worked on for nearly 15 minutes, he was carted to the locker room. The crowd cheered when Roethlisberger flashed a thumb's-up sign.

He was diagnosed with a concussion and "at this point, all tests are negative, which is positive,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. "We are optimistic of where he is going to be capable of being.''

Roethlisberger was taken to a local hospital. He was expected to remain overnight.

The Block News Alliance's Ed Bouchette contributed to this report.



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