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Steelers Couch keeps secondary on heels as Steelers fall behind early and never catch up

Monday, October 06, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

This time, there was no comeback, no Tommy Maddox magic, not much of anything, really, for the Steelers. They fell behind the Cleveland Browns early and lost their second game in a row at home, 33-13.

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward finds room between Browns defenders Ben Taylor, left and Daylon McCutcheon last night at Heinz Field. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

That screeching sound coming from Heinz Field last night was the window of opportunity closing on the Steelers.

Playing more like a team in disarray in all phases than one picked among the favorites in the AFC, the Steelers fell apart. Maddox, called out by coach Bill Cowher at his news conference Tuesday for throwing too many interceptions, threw two more and had one returned for 75 yards and a touchdown; he also lost a fumble. The Steelers' special teams bumbled and their defense was humbled by Tim Couch, Cleveland's backup quarterback.

"That was a very poor display of football," Cowher said. "Right now, it seems like anything bad can happen."

At one point, Couch completed 17 of 18 passes. He finished 20 of 25 for 208 yards. Maddox was 11 of 24 for 136 yards (a 29.2 passer rating) and was replaced by Charlie Batch with 4:35 left in the game. Cowher said he plans no change in his starting quarterback when the Steelers play at Denver Sunday.

"What do you think I'm going to do, jump off the cliff?" Maddox asked. "Yes, I've got confidence. I've got confidence in myself and I have confidence in my teammates. It's five games into the season. It's not as gloom and doom as people think it is."

 
 
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The loss dropped the Steelers into a second-place tie in the AFC North Division with the Browns at 2-3, behind Baltimore (2-2), which was off yesterday.

The Steelers had won six in a row and 13 of 15 against Cleveland before last night. Last year, the Steelers trailed the Browns in both regular-season games and a playoff game, and mounted comebacks to win all of them.

Not this time.

The Browns ran out to a 10-0 lead and never looked back. Couch threw touchdown passes of 6 yards to Andre Davis and 9 yards to Kevin Johnson, and scrambled 9 yards for another score. Phil Dawson kicked field goals of 19 and 22 yards, and cornerback Daylon McCutcheon scored on a 75-yard interception return.

William Green ran for 115 yards on 33 carries for Cleveland.

The Steelers' only scores came on a 1-yard run by Jerome Bettis and field goals of 30 and 37 yards by Jeff Reed.

Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, the top receiving tandem in the league, combined for only three catches. Amos Zereoue's 38 yards rushing were the most in another poor performance by the Steelers' running game, which produced 60 yards on 18 tries.

"It's embarrassing," Ward said, "to play on national TV in prime time and put on the performance we did."

Asked if Maddox seemed as though he was losing confidence, Ward responded, "I don't know. You'll have to ask Tommy. He's the quarterback out there. He's our leader. He's our team captain. ... Whatever play is called, I just go out and run it."

For the first time this season, the Steelers did not score first. The Browns took the opening kick and drove 81 yards on 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead on Couch's 6-yard pass to Andre Davis on third down.

The Steelers did not take long to turn the ball back over to Cleveland. Maddox fumbled on the third play from scrimmage. End Courtney Brown swooped around right tackle Todd Fordham and stripped Maddox of the ball as he brought his arm back to throw.

Brown recovered the ball at the 20 and Phil Dawson kicked a 19-yard field goal with 5:46 left in the first quarter for a 10-0 Cleveland lead.

The Steelers got a break on a poor Josh Miller punt near the end of the quarter. The ball took a big hop as Browns returner Dennis Northcutt tried to field it, and it glanced off his hands, making it a live ball. Clint Kriewaldt recovered at the Browns' 21. Zereoue gained 7 on a swing pass and 2 on a run, but on third-and-1, middle linebacker Andra Davis dragged Zereoue down for no gain and Reed kicked a 30-yard field goal to slice Cleveland's lead to 10-3.

That's when another special teams breakdown followed for the Steelers. A poor kickoff by Reed dropped inside the 20, Andre Davis fielded it and was tackled at the 23. But special teams captain Clark Haggans was offside so they had to kick it over.

This time, Andre Davis returned the kickoff 69 yards to the Steelers' 23 and Couch converted it into a 9-yard touchdown pass to Johnson. Tackle Casey Hampton blocked the extra-point kick and the Browns held a 16-3 lead early in the second quarter.

Antwaan Randle El, penned in all season on returns, took a Browns punt back 59 yards for a touchdown. But followers of Steelers special teams play could predict what would happen next. Haggans got caught again, this time for an illegal block in the back.

Instead of a touchdown, the Steelers started from their 36. That's when Ward came into the picture. Held without a catch for the first 25 minutes, he caught a 30-yarder from Maddox to the Cleveland 31. On third down, he caught a 25-yarder over the middle to the 1, which would be his last catch of the night.

Bettis took it in from there and the Steelers trailed, 16-10, with 3:17 left in the half.

The Browns, though, responded with a touchdown drive that ended with six seconds left in the half. Couch scrambled to his right, saw no one open and ran untouched into the end zone for a 23-10 Cleveland lead.

Some fans in Heinz Field booed the Steelers as they left the field at halftime, which would become a popular pastime in the second half.

Couch completed 16 of 17 in the first half.

The Steelers wasted Ike Taylor's 53-yard return with the opening kickoff to the Cleveland 48 by going three-and-out and punting into the end zone.

In keeping with the special teams play of the day on both sides, Randle El fumbled a subsequent Cleveland punt but teammate Chidi Iwuoma bailed him out when he recovered at the Browns' 41.

But maybe that wasn't so good.

On third-and-1 from the Browns' 32, Maddox faked a handoff to Bettis in the I-formation and dropped back to pass. Under pressure, he threw across his body to the left toward tight end Jerame Tuman. The ball was short and nowhere near him. McCutcheon looked more like the intended receiver. He took the gift ball from Maddox and ran unimpeded 75 yards for a touchdown that gave Cleveland a 30-10 lead with 9:30 left in the third quarter.

"It's the same old occurrence there -- turnovers and big plays," Cowher said.

Said Maddox, "I came off the fake and had someone in my face."

Bret Alexander intercepted a Couch pass, lateralled it to Kendrell Bell and the Steelers set up at the Cleveland 41. But from the 19, Maddox overthrew Burress near the goal line and then Burress dropped a third-down pass at the 6. Cowher's decision to send Reed out to kick a 37-yard field goal on fourth-and-5 was roundly booed by the fans.

Tennessee beat the Steelers, 30-13, last week at Heinz Field.

"It's hard to say it's one of those days when you lose two in a row like that," Alexander said.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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