Playing the Browns twice a year used to mean something to the Steelers. Now it means two fuss-free wins with little fan excitement.
PITTSBURGH (AP) — This was the Browns-Steelers rivalry: Hall of Famers Jim Brown and John Henry Johnson trading 100-yard games. Terry Bradshaw shaking off Joe “Turkey” Jones’ violent sack to torment Cleveland with touchdown passes. Bill Cowher vs. Bill Belichick.
This is the Browns-Steelers rivalry: James Harrison tackling quarterbacks, as well as a Browns fan who unwisely runs onto the field. The Steelers’ regulars rarely playing four quarters. Scores of 31-0, 34-7, 27-7, 41-0. A turnpike rivalry that’s become a turnpike rout.
Playing Cleveland twice a year once meant so much to the Steelers, they refused to shift from the old NFL into the AFC during the 1970 merger unless the Browns went with them. Now, playing the Browns twice a year mostly means two victories that require little muss or fuss and generate little fan excitement.
A rivalry truly is a rivalry only when both teams are competitive, and that’s rarely been the case lately with the Browns. They’ve dropped 11 in a row to the Steelers, 17 of 18 since 2000 and 24 of 27 since 1993. No wonder they’ve become the most welcomed week on the Steelers’ schedule aside from the bye.
The Browns haven’t swept a season series from Pittsburgh since 1988, or three years before coach Chuck Noll retired. Cowher lost to them only five times in 15 seasons, and Mike Tomlin is 4-0 against them.
Steelers safety Ryan Clark almost needs reminding that the Browns (1-4) are supposed to be a big game on Pittsburgh’s schedule as the Browns trudge into Heinz Field today amid another season that’s fast slipping away.
“I don’t come into the game all excited because we’re playing the Cleveland Browns,” Clark said. “I guess maybe if they start beating us some it will turn into a rivalry, and I’ll get into it a little more, but for me it’s just football, a division game and we have to win as many of those as we can.”
The Steelers (3-2) have yet to win an AFC North game, but then they’ve played only one, a 23-20 loss in Cincinnati. After beating San Diego 38-28 and Detroit 28-20 the last two weeks, the Steelers are welcoming back safety Troy Polamalu, who missed four games with a knee injury, and Willie Parker, who missed two with a sore left big toe.
The Browns are coming off a raggedy 6-3 win at Buffalo in which Derek Anderson had the lowest completion percentage (11.8 percent) of any winning quarterback since the ’70 merger. They’ve tried both Brady Quinn and Anderson with little success, and they’re not likely to find it in Pittsburgh, where they threw for only 20 yards while losing 31-0 last season.
As coach Eric Mangini said, it’s up to the Browns to restore the rivalry. While the Steelers might not be overly excited by this game, the Browns are.
“You feel it,” Mangini said. “You feel it in the city. You feel it in the locker room. You feel it. It’s just understood. It’s part of the culture.”
The Browns stealing one from the Super Bowl winners in their own stadium might seem improbable, but stranger things have happened.
In 1999, the year the Browns returned to the NFL, the Steelers held them to two first downs while winning 43-0 in Cleveland. But the Browns inexplicably won the return matchup in Three Rivers Stadium 16-15 as Phil Dawson kicked a decisive 39-yard field goal on the final play.
“You can ask any Browns fan — that will make their life, their day, their week, however you want to look at it, if we can beat this football team,” wide receiver Joshua Cribbs said.
Doing that probably requires another big game from Jamal Lewis — he ran for 117 yards against the Bills and has 934 in his career vs. Pittsburgh — and the Browns slowing Ben Roethlisberger, who is second in the league in passing yardage.
Previously, Roethlisberger was a move-the-chains quarterback who found ways to keep drives going, but he’s becoming a big-yardage thrower who can win a game even if there’s no running game to complement him. That wasn’t a problem when Rashard Mendenhall ran for 165 yards against San Diego and 77 against Detroit, and now he’ll go against the league’s worst rushing defense.
Offensively, the Browns aren’t much better, ranking above only Oakland in total yardage and passing offense.
For now, the resumption of the rivalry might have to wait.
“You can’t get caught up in previous years,” Ward said. “They have a new coach, new players, they’re not the same Cleveland Browns we’ve been beating up. It’s a matter of us controlling what we can control. If we don’t go out there and give up turnovers and let them into the game, we should be fine.”
Losing defensive end Aaron Smith to a season-ending shoulder injury was a major setback to a Steelers defense that is No. 4 in the league, and linebacker James Farrior said they must learn to win without one of the league’s best run stoppers.
“We’ve got to see how we adjust,” Farrior said. “We don’t want to stop that streak.”