By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
BEREA, Ohio (AP) - Imagine one of the Hatfields moving in with the McCoys.
That's kind of what happened to Cleveland middle linebacker Earl Holmes, who left the Pittsburgh Steelers after six seasons and signed as a free agent to play with the Browns.
And Sunday, Holmes will face his former teammates for the first time since leaving.
"Going back to Heinz Field," he said. "That's a big thing for me. I'm not going to say I'm not a Steeler anymore.
"I had a lot of good memories of Pittsburgh."
He's making new ones in Cleveland. And although Holmes won't publicly admit it, deep down he wants to show the Steelers they made a mistake by not re-signing him after last season.
Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher reportedly wanted to keep the 29-year-old Holmes, the Steelers' leading tackler the past five seasons. However, others in Pittsburgh's front office were leery of re-signing Holmes, who had knee problems late last season and had to sit out of the AFC title game against New England with a sore knee.
Instead, the Steelers signed James Farrior, formerly of the New York Jets.
Hours later, Holmes traded his black helmet for an orange one, signing a five-year, $17.5 million deal with the Browns.
"I'm not upset with the (Steelers) organization," Holmes said. "It was a business decision they made. It's one I made. I had to do the best thing for me and my family."
For six seasons, the Steelers were Holmes' football family. The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder anchored one of the NFL's best defenses, starting in 79 games.
His former teammates know him better than most of his new ones. And Steelers safety Lee Flowers isn't buying Holmes' talk that this Sunday is just another game.
"He's going to come out and prove the Steelers really messed up by letting him go," Flowers said.
Holmes got off to a slow start with the Browns. After undergoing some minor knee surgery, he missed much of training camp. He also struggled while adjusting to Cleveland's 4-3 defense after playing in a 3-4 -- three down linemen, four linebackers -- system in Pittsburgh.
Holmes didn't do much in the Browns' season opener against Kansas City when Priest Holmes shredded Cleveland's defense for 122 yards and four rushing TDs.
But Earl Holmes played much better in Week 2 against Cincinnati, and then was all over the field last week in Tennessee. He recorded 10 tackles and helped the Browns hold Eddie George to 59 yards.
"I feel great," he said. "Watch the games. Watch the film. I'm looking good. But at the same time, I can improve. I'm still thinking a little. When I was in the 3-4, I wasn't thinking at all, but I was there for six years. So I'm still learning, but that's a good thing, because it means I can get better."
Holmes said his cell phone has been ringing steadily this week with former teammates getting in some early pregame trash talk. Once the game begins, though, the talk will stop and the hitting will start.
The Steelers (0-2) can't afford to let the Browns (2-1) open a 2½-game lead in the AFC North, and Holmes said Pittsburgh will give the ball to running back Jerome Bettis -- until the Browns prove they can stop "The Bus".
"I expect to see a lot of Jerome Bettis," he said. "I've seen him a lot over the last six years. But not like the way I'm going to see him on Sunday.
"We've hit each other in practice, but this counts now. I'm going to come with everything I've got. I'm sure he'll come with everything he's got."
On Sunday, Holmes will get a new view of one of the NFL's fiercest rivalries. It won't be his first Browns-Steelers game, but he says it will be his most memorable.
"I think this one will stand out," he said. "You see what's going on. Everybody's like, 'Well, Earl Holmes led the Steelers in tackles, and how do you feel about going home?' Well, I feel great. I'm healthy and I just want to win."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)