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Finder: Couch relaxed in easy victory

Monday, October 06, 2003

Before the debate begins about which part of the Steelers' anatomy graciously allows more points to the opposition, the rear end of their defense or Tommy Maddox's right hand, consider precisely who last night picked the meat from the bones of this 2003 Steelers season.

That was Tim Couch, kids.

You know Couch. As in soft and cushy. As in the booed and battered -- in his own town and by his own Cleveland fans. As in fodder for the Steelers' sack total the past four times they met, all Browns and Couch losses.

The Steelers know Couch ... or at least they thought they did. Holds the ball too long? Easily confused by ever-changing defense formations and personnel? Prone to sacks and interceptions and just plain bad passing?

That wasn't Couch last night in orange britches leading the Browns to a soft and cushy 33-13 triumph. Shoot, that could've been the second coming of Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids for all we know, this being the second time in 20 years that the Pumpkinheads came to play in drawers to match. Interesting to note, they beat the Steelers that previous time bedecked in orange bottoms, 30-17, Dec. 18, 1983 in old Municipal Stadium.

The Steelers' sorry secondary, in fact, made him look as good as every other quarterback they play. So philanthropic they ought to rename this place Heinz Endowment Field, the home side permitted a 60-percent career thrower to complete 17 of his first 18 passes -- and the other was a throwaway in the end zone. That meant that the unit continued to keep on giving, what with Tennessee's Steve McNair misfiring on only one of his 16 pass attempts a week earlier, and that one should've been an interference call on the Steelers.

Go back to the end of the game prior, facing the mortal Jon Kitna at Cincinnati, and the secondary had yielded a string of 35 completions in 37 attempts.

Repeat, 35 of 37. To Kitna, McNair and Couch.

The most recent two each recorded career highs for completion percentage.

And the high-flying Broncos, Rams and Seahawks offenses are up next.

Look at Couch, before and after.

The previous four games, he was 62 of 112 for 635 yards -- he hadn't accumulated more than 181 in any -- with six interceptions, three touchdowns and whopping 18 sacks.

Last night, he was 20 of 25 (a career-high 80 percent completion rate) for 205 yards -- he is 3-0 when accumulating 199 yards or more against the Steelers -- with two touchdowns, one interception and just one sack.

He was Otto Graham. The Steelers threw five different defensive alignments the opening five plays; what happened to the quarterback who was supposed to be showcasing his wares on ESPN in advance of Kelly Holcomb's return? He tossed a 23-yard completion to an open Andre Davis. Then an 18-yarder to Dennis Northcutt even after Steelers safety Mike Logan tipped it slightly. Two plays later, again facing the Steelers' nickel defense and in the teeth of a blitz, Couch calmly lofted a lovely 32-yarder over the right shoulder and into the embrace of Quincy Morgan. Three plays after that, he threw another easy pass, a soft and cushy 6-yarder to Davis for a touchdown.

Next drive, on a cornerback blitz by Chad Scott, he loosed a 13-yard pass into that vacated area to tight end Steve Heiden and arranged a field goal for a 10-0 lead. Next drive, he cooly rolled right and hit Kevin Johnson for a 9-yard touchdown and a 16-3 lead. The final drive before halftime, he completed all six of his attempts for 56 yards and scrambled 9 yards for yet another touchdown and a 23-10 lead.

He wasn't sacked until early in the third quarter. He wasn't forced into making a bad throw until late in the third, when it was intercepted by Brent Alexander. He wasn't ... this good before, was he?

A broken right fibula put Holcomb into position to riddle the Steelers for 429 yards passing in the playoffs last December. Another broken right fibula -- this one on Holcomb, not Couch -- put the 1999 first-overall draftee in a passer-enviable position.

Against the Steelers' secondary.

It's broken, all right. Blitzing doesn't seem to fix it anymore, either. Last night, Denver's Jake Plummer, St. Louis' Marc Bulger (of Central Catholic) and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck must've been drooling on their remote controls.


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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