Archive for Sunday, September 8, 2002

Cleveland plans to use Chiefs as yardstick

September 8, 2002


— The Cleveland Browns spent the offseason trying to fix their porous rushing defense, which was flattened, outrun and humiliated last season.

Today, the Kansas City Chiefs will show the Browns if they've made any progress.

When: Noon todayWhere: Cleveland.Television: Channels 5, 13.Line: Browns by 1 1/2.

"They were the No. 1 rushing team last year," Browns cornerback Corey Fuller said of the Chiefs, who were actually fifth. "Priest Holmes was the No. 1 running back. They got one of the better offensive lines, and we brought in players specifically to stop the run.

"And guess what? We get a chance in Week 1. We couldn't have picked a better game."

Cleveland's ability to shut down Holmes, who led the NFL with 1,555 yards last season, is one of many subplots in a game matching teams with big expectations and some big headaches.

Injuries have forced the Chiefs and Browns to shuffle their starting lineups, and in Cleveland's case, could cause a last-minute quarterback change if Tim Couch's elbow is too sore for him to start.

Few teams in the league had as many distractions this summer as the Chiefs.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City's best player, sat out the entire preseason in a contract dispute before signing a one-year tender last week. He's expected to play today.

Defensive lineman Ryan Sims, the club's first-round draft pick, also held out of camp for money and only practiced for the first time Wednesday. He's not not expected to play for two more weeks.

In addition, offensive tackle Willie Roaf, the Chiefs' biggest offseason acquisition, was arrested last week on drunken driving charges. And the Chiefs lost safety Jerome Woods for the year after he broke his leg in the preseason.

The opening kickoff can't arrive soon enough for Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil, who with all the question marks can only wonder how good his team might be.

"I'd like to believe we are better than when we were at our best last year," said Vermeil, whose team went 6-10 last year. "But I don't know if that's true."

Cleveland coach Butch Davis had issues of his own to deal with as the Browns prepared for their opener.

Couch tore scar tissue in his elbow last week. Also uncertain were starting defensive end Kenard Lang and tight end Aaron Shea.

If Couch can't play, Kelly Holcomb would get his second career NFL start and first since he was with Indianapolis in 1997.

"I know I've had enough preparation," said Holcomb. "I know the best experience is getting out there and playing, but I haven't been fortunate enough to do that. But I still think you can gain from watching guys from the sideline and knowing what's going on. I'm totally ready."

Gonzalez says he is, too.

As his teammates sweated through two-a-days in Wisconsin, Gonzalez was in California wondering if he was going to sit out the season while the Chiefs refused to meet his contract demands.

But he's playing, and Vermeil couldn't be happier to have the multitalented Gonzalez, who showed up in remarkable shape when he finally reported.

"Tony Gonzalez is a tremendous worker," Vermeil said. "Not every coach can say that about his best player."

During his holdout, Gonzalez had the Chiefs fax him scripts of the plays they were working on and he practiced them with quarterback Warren Moon.

Now, he'll run them for real with Trent Green, in his second year with the Chiefs.

"We go as he goes," Gonzalez said of Green, whose 24 interceptions were a league-high last year. "I think he knows that. Offensively, if we stay healthy there's no telling what this team can do."

Cleveland's playoff chances could hinge on how well it runs the ball and if it can stop someone from running it.

The Browns had the league's worst rushing offense last season, averaging just 84.4 yards. They think first-round draft pick William Green can be an every-down back, but the former Boston College star has been slowed by a contract holdout and some nagging injuries.

To bulk up their interior defense, the Browns signed linebacker Earl Holmes, who led Pittsburgh in tackles the past three seasons, and safety Robert Griffith.

With Gonzalez not yet at full speed, and against a Cleveland defense that led the NFL with 33 interceptions last season, it's unlikely Kansas City's offense will be pass happy today.

The Browns know what's coming.

"If they can pound," Fuller said. "They'll pound."

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