Couch no surprise

9-26-03, 12:35 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis knew the storyline as he came off the practice field Thursday and heard Tim Couch had officially been named the Browns quarterback.

A former No. 1 quarterback on the ropes against a rebuilding franchise desperate for its first victory under its new head coach.

"He's fighting for his job and his life in the NFL. There's a lot of pressure on him. It's obviously a big day for him and a big day for us," Lewis said. "We know the team will respond to him and that he's a good player. He'll be excited to play."

Since the Browns run pretty much the same offense whether Couch or Kelly Holcomb are in the lineup, the Bengals haven't concentrated this week on preparing for either. What Cleveland gives up in accuracy and quick reads from Holcomb, they gain athleticism and mobility from Couch. The Bengals have high regard for Couch, knowing his 83.2 passer rating against them in six games is nine points higher than his career rating.

"They've got two starting quarterbacks," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Who has the edge? Who should be starting? Who's to say? I guess we'll see Sunday."

That's when we'll see for sure if Bengals running back Corey Dillon (groin) is going to make his 52nd straight start in Cleveland, the third longest streak among NFL running backs behind only Tennessee's Eddie George at 115 and the Jets' Curtis Martin at 78.

Dillon practiced Thursday, but Lewis wouldn't say how much. He began practice rotating with

Brandon Bennett and Rudi Johnson and ended it taking a ride off in the cart while the rest of the team walked off, usually a no-no with Lewis.

But Lewis said Dillon had "a special dispensation," so he could get treatment and get to a meeting on time. Dillon is still rated "probable," but Lewis wouldn't come right out and say he's going to start.

Lewis indicated Dillon is going to be a game-time decision, but he showed no surprise that Couch got the nod so quickly in the week. As one Bengals defender said, "We anticipated Couch. You had to. (Holcomb) has a broken leg."

Free safety Mark Roman: "We haven't really talked about it because we know we're getting ready to play a good passing offense."

The Bengals have enough recent film on both since each beat them last season. While Couch rested a sore elbow, Holcomb threw two touchdown passes in a 20-7 win in Cleveland Sept. 15. Then two months later, Couch delivered the ninth most efficient game of his career with three touchdown passes and a 99.9 passer rating in Cleveland's 27-20 victory.

Couch, the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft out of the University of Kentucky, has always played well against what amounts to his hometown team. Since the Bengals swept the Browns in his rookie season, Couch is 3-1 against Cincinnati and has put up three of his 15 90-plus passer-rating games against the Bengals.

His overall numbers aren't as good working against the Ravens' defense Lewis coordinated. Couch played in five games against Baltimore from 1999-2001, and his 49.8 passer rating came on 72-for-136 passing for 676 yards, three touchdowns, and eight interceptions.

But in his last two games against the playoff-bound Ravens in the 2001 season, Couch engineered a sweep of Baltimore in a pair of 10-point victories for a Browns' team that finished 7-9.

"Couch is more mobile than the other guy, and they've got fast receivers," said Bengals cornerback Tory James. "I don't see too much difference. It's the same thing either way. They're going to air it out and we've got a big challenge in front of us because they're a good throwing team."

You can debate it from Alexandria to Akron if the Bengals get a bad break because now they have to deal with the more athletic Couch. Or if they get a break because the last thing Holcomb did last week in San Francisco was complete 17 of 21 passes in the fourth quarter and steer the Browns 17 plays and 91 yards for the winning score with 29 seconds left.

"Holcomb pretty much sits there and gets rid of it quickly. He's a different quarterback with pressure in his face," said Hawkins, who has started against both. "You know Couch is going to be out there trying to prove that he should be the starter, so he'll be fired up. To me, what makes him a good quarterback is he has the ability to get out of the pocket and create. That's what they're looking for nowadays. They're looking for guys that can run around, keep the play alive, and have a strong enough arm to beat you downfield. That's what he does."

But Hawkins doesn't get the sense the Browns change much at all when they make a change. It's not like when the Steelers were wrestling between Tommy Maddox and Kordell Stewart.

"They run the same offense, they're trying to do the same things," Hawkins said. "With Pittsburgh, you knew if Kordell was going to be in there, he was going to run the sprintouts and the dashes and wide receiver screens. We know that both (Cleveland quarterbacks) can get the ball downfield."

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