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Browns, Steelers still need work



Published: Wed, September 18, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Two weeks into the NFL season, here's the good news: Either the Cleveland Browns or the Pittsburgh Steelers will win the AFC North Division and qualify for the playoffs.

The bad news is that both teams have a lot of work to do if they plan to hang around after the first postseason game.

The NFL's new format has four four-team divisions in each conference. The eight division winners earn playoff berths and at least one home game.

There also will be two wild-card teams per conference. Those teams will never play at home unless it's against the other wild-card team in the conference championship game.

It's early, but the Browns and Steelers (even though they are a combined 1-3) appear to be the class of this year's AFC North.

In fact, the Browns would hold a two-game lead over their rivals if linebacker Dwayne Rudd had kept his helmet on during what should have been the final play of the Chiefs' game on Sept. 8.

Holcomb outstanding

Instead, the first-place Browns are 1-1, thanks to superb quarterbacking by backup Kelly Holcomb. So far, Holcomb has completed 44 of 69 tosses for 524 yards and a passer rating of 111.0.

The seven quarterbacks (Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Mark Brunell) with more yardage that Holcomb have all led their teams to conference title games. That's pretty nifty company.

It's a good thing the Browns' passing attack is doing so well because the running game -- again -- is all but nonexistent.

In two games, Jamel White has 80 yards on 20 carries. Rookie first-round draft pick William Green is off to a very unimpressive start, with just 53 yards on 25 carries.

Injuries to offensive linemen Dave Wohlabaugh and Ryan Tucker haven't helped developed consistent blocking. Hopefully, time will help heal the rushing woes.

In Pittsburgh, players, coaches and fans are stunned by the Steelers' 0-2 start. They shouldn't be. The New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders are Super Bowl contenders.

No pass defense

What should surprise everyone is how well the Patriots' Tom Brady and the Raiders' Rich Gannon passed against the Steelers highly-regarded defense.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher said his defense's inability to get off the field after Oakland third downs was the main problem in Sunday's 30-17 loss. The Raiders converted 12 of their 20 third down plays into first downs.

"You have to get off the field -- that's the best way of handling it," said Cowher, who was stunned by how the Raiders ran the ball just 17 times while tossing 65 passes. "We had chances on third and 8 and third and 10, and we didn't get off the field."

Of course, when your receiver stable is led by Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, throwing short passes in the Raiders' West Coast scheme makes so much sense.

Cowher said the Steelers blitzed more on Sunday than they did against the Patriots in Week One's 30-14 loss.

"[Gannon] was throwing it quick," Cowher explained.

Defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen said the Raiders and Patriots picked the short-passing game "because of how well we play the run. When we get into situations like that, we've got to tackle [after] the catch. That's something we normally do very well."

This Sunday, the Browns play the Titans in Tennessee while the Steelers have the weekend off to lick their wounded egos.

Matchup on Sept. 29

Pittsburgh's next game will be against the Browns on Sept. 29 at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field. Although it's very early in the season, the winner of that game will earn a key tiebreaking advantage.

Browns starting quarterback Tim Couch is expected to be back in the starting lineup this Sunday. Normally, that would be a reason for Browns fans to celebrate, but they have to wonder if Holcomb would be a better choice against the short pass weary Steelers.

XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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