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Browns bowled over by the Bus

The Pittsburgh Steelers protected their rookie quarterback’s head – and his perfect start.

Ben Roethlisberger became the first rookie QB to begin 7-0 since 1970 as Jerome Bettis had two short touchdown runs, leading the Steelers to a 24-10 win over the Browns yesterday.

The Steelers (8-1) took smashmouth football to a new extreme. Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter bloodied Browns running back William Green in a fight during pregame drills. Both were ejected before the game.

After handing New England and Philadelphia their first losses the past two weeks, Pittsburgh figured to be due for a letdown. That will have to wait until next week – maybe – as the Steelers remained the NFL’s hottest team with their seventh straight win.

Bettis, starting in place of the injured Duce Staley for the second straight week, gained 103 yards on 29 carries. He scored on TD runs from five and one yards in the first half.

Bettis had a chance to score again, but couldn’t get over the goal line despite three tries from Cleveland’s 1 in the fourth.

The Steelers settled for Jeff Reed’s 20-yard field goal with 12:25 left instead. They put the game away moments later when Aaron Smith stripped Jeff Garcia and safety Russell Stuvaints ran it in from 24 yards.

Roethlisberger wasn’t spectacular, just efficient. He finished 10-of-16 for 134 yards. He also had 41 yards rushing as he smartly avoided pressure by running from trouble the few times the Browns (3-6) were able to get him in any trouble.

Roethlisberger gained 13 yards on a key third-and-1 late in the third quarter. He got the Browns to bite on a fake handoff and ran around left end, picking up a nice block from wide receiver Plaxico Burress to get the first down.

Garcia was under siege almost every time he dropped back. He went 7-for-16 for 110 yards, was sacked four times and threw an interception.

He was replaced by Kelly Holcomb with 9 minutes left and Steelers up by three TDs. Holcomb threw a 7-yard TD pass to Aaron Shea.

The 104th game in the NFL’s fiercest rivalry was particularly nasty – even before kickoff.

Earlier in the week, Browns defensive tackle Gerard Warren threatened to go after Roethlisberger’s head, saying: “Kill the head and the body is dead.” Warren was warned by the league on Friday to watch himself or risk a suspension.

Then, during pregame warmups, Porter and Green wildly exchanged punches near the 50-yard line. Both were ejected by referee Jeff Triplette before the teams were even introduced.

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