Couch answers

10-14-01, 2:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With a 20 mile-per-hour wind whipping through Paul Brown Stadium Sunday, Cleveland wasted no time using it to the Browns' advantage late in the first quarter.

One play after Bengals punter Nick Harris got off an 18-yard punt from his own end zone into the wind, Browns quarterback Tim Couch avoided a blitz from strong safety JoJuan Armour and hit receiver Kevin Johnson with a 30-yard touchdown pass that gave the Browns a 7-3 lead. Johnson ran past cornerback Robert Bean, in the game after starter Rodney Heath left with a left leg injury.

Penalties hampered the Bengals' offense early. Running back Corey Dillon found some early running room, racking up 54 yards in the first quarter on 10 carries, including a 25-yarder. But a 15-yard penalty on center Rich Braham's altercation with linebacker Brant Boyer killed that drive.

Then early in the second quarter, a 10-yard completion to receiver Peter Warrick got wiped out by an illegal shift.

The Bengals scored their first points of the season in the first quarter and took a 3-0 lead when Neil Rackers ended the game's first drive with a 27-yard field goal.

Rackers, who had missed his last four tries, didn't get a chance earlier in the drive when the Bengals opted to go for it on fourth-and-seven from the Cleveland 31. The Bengals came up two yards short on a pass to wide receiver Ron Dugans, but Browns safety Percy Ellsworth kept the drive alive on the play when he hit Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hit in the head after the pass.

Dillon picked up 18 yards on his first three carries, but lost six yards on his next three.

Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes missed the first game of his career Sunday to be with his family after the death of his father.

Jimmie Spikes lost a 10-month battle with brain cancer Friday and Spikes returned home to Sandersville, Ga., this weekend.

Spikes, who had made 52 straight starts, was replaced by Adrian Ross in the lineup against the Browns at right outside linebacker. Ross had a quadricep injury after last Sunday's game in Pittsburgh and missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but worked Friday. He's starting his 16th game in four seasons after making four starts last year at middle linebacker.

"Takeo chose to be with his family today and we certainly understand that," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "Families are more important than football. I wasn't playing, but I knew what I went through when my Dad died."

Brown has missed only one game in Bengals' history, a preseason game in Detroit

in 1991. He stayed in Cincinnati to be with his ailing father and Paul Brown died three days later.

If Ross had trouble with his quad, the Bengals are going to be extremely thin with just five active linebackers.

Middle linebacker Brian Simmons could be forced to move to right outside and be replaced by Canute Curtis in the middle.

The fifth backer is rookie Riall Johnson, a sixth-round pick whom the Bengals are hoping to give more seasoning before he gets a bigger role. One option could be JoJuan Armour, who made his first NFL start at strong safety Sunday. Armour is a converted linebacker who made the switch in the offseason.

The absence of Spikes comes at a difficult time for a Bengals' defense that is reeling from two straight poor efforts against the run. Last week in Pittsburgh, Jerome Bettis and the Steelers rolled up 274 yards on the ground, the biggest rushing day against the Bengals since 1972.

In place of Spikes, Simmons was elevated to defensive captain and took Sunday's coin toss with Willie Anderson.

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