With all the NFL 100th Season lists, I’ve been thinking about the histories of various Steeler rivalries. So every week for the rest of the year, I’ll post a retrospective preview, considering the two teams and setting up for the upcoming game.
This week: Cleveland Browns
Pittsburgh 5-4 (2nd AFC North)
Cleveland 3-6 (3rd AFC North)
2019 Off/Def Comparisons:
....................................... Overall ........... Pass ........... Rush ........... Score
Pittsburgh Offense........289 (28th).......206 (27th)........83 (27th).......21.5 (19th)
Cleveland Defense.......356 (17th).......221 (7th)........135 (27th).......24.6 (21st)
Cleveland Offense........348 (19th).........225 (18th).....124 (13th).......19.0 (26th)
Pittsburgh Defense........332 (12th)........227 (12th)....105 (17th).......20.1 (10th)
Other Notable Stats:
Pittsburgh : +13 (2nd)
Cleveland : -8 (28th)
Opponent Passer Rating
Pittsburgh : 82.8 (6th)
Cleveland : 99.4 (22nd)
Rushing Touchdowns Allowed
Pittsburgh : 4 (4th)
Cleveland : 8 (16th)
Sacks Given Up
Pittsburgh : 11 (1st)
Cleveland : 25 (20th)
Pittsburgh : 3.5 (28th)
Cleveland : 5.2 (2nd)
Pittsburgh : 3.9 (7th)
Cleveland : 4.9 (28th)
Player in Common (current):
Joe Haden (Browns 2010-16, 1st Rd, 7 overall / signed by Steelers as free agent 2017)
Haden was a two-time Pro Bowler in Cleveland and a second-team All Pro in 2013, before the Browns shockingly cut him on the eve of the 2017 season. He was a free agent for about 10 minutes before the Steelers snapped him up and cut previous starter Ross Cockrell. Haden hasn’t had the same success in Pittsburgh, but he has absolutely held down the CB1 position for the three years he’s been in town. Classy, low-key, and a reliable locker room leader, he is undoubtedly the best Steeler cornerback since Ike Taylor.
Player in Common (past):
Marion Motley (Browns 1946-53 / traded to Pittsburgh in 1955 after a brief retirement, for someone named Ed Modzelewski)
Motley was one of the first African-American players to re-integrate professional football after years of unofficial segregation – and he was one of the great running backs of all time. A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team, he still holds the all-time record for yards per carry, with a ridiculous 5.7 average. After leading the AAFC and NFL in rushing and winning a handful of world championships, Motley retired in 1954. He came out of retirement in 1955, but the Browns traded him to Pittsburgh, where he played linebacker for seven games, and then retired for good.
Bedlam Series (2014-17): Oklahoma 3-1
This is the name of the annual Oklahoma vs Oklahoma State rivalry. Through these years, Mason Rudolph led OSU, Baker Mayfield quarterbacked OU.
Mayfield’s Sooners won 2015-17. Rudolph’s Cowboys won in 2014. In that contest, Rudolph, a freshman, led a frantic 14 point comeback in the final five minutes to win in overtime. Mayfield had lost his eligibility that season, and didn’t play that day.
Pittsburgh 664-583-22 (.532)
Cleveland 531-514-14 (.505) *Includes 47-4-3 record in AAFC
Cleveland 469-490-11 (.486) *NFL results only
Pittsburgh 502-315-3 (.614)
Cleveland 289-419-4 (.407)
The Steelers are the winningest team in the NFL since 1970.
The Browns are 27th in wins, and 31st in winning percentage.
Pittsburgh 212-115-2 (.648)
Cleveland 93-210-1 (.306)
The Steelers are the #2 team in the NFL this millennium.
Cleveland is the worst team in the NFL this millennium.
Pittsburgh : Team of the 1970s (1972-79)
102-31-1 (.764) overall record
14-4 (.778) postseason record
13 Hall of Famers
Four Super Bowl Titles
Cleveland : Team of the 1950s (1946-58)
137-34-5 (.790) overall record / 85-30-2 (.733) in NFL only
9-5 (.645) postseason record / 4-5 (.444) in NFL only
9 Hall of Famers.
Three NFL Titles, four AAFC Titles.
Second Golden Era:
Pittsburgh : 2001-11
128-57-1 (.750) overall record
12-5 (.667) postseason record
Five AFC championship appearances
Three AFC titles
Two Super Bowl championships
Could have been considered “team of the decade” if not for New England Patriots
Cleveland : 1963-69
69-27-2 (.741) overall record
3-4 (.429) postseason record
Five division titles
Four NFL championship game appearances
One NFL championship
Could have been considered “team of the decade” if not for Green Bay Packers
Pittsburgh : 1933-71
One* playoff appearance (a non-scheduled tie-breaker game, which they lost 21-0)
Zero playoff wins
Seven winning seasons in 38 years
Low Point: 3-24-1 (.109) over 1968-69
Cleveland : 1999-present
One playoff appearance (a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002)
Zero playoff wins
Two winnings seasons in 19 years
Low Point: 1-31 (.032) over 2016-17
Head Coach’s Clinic:
Chuck Noll played for Browns 1953-59 under Paul Brown (Brown called him “The Professor” because, “Chuck Noll is never wrong”).
Bill Cowher played for Cleveland 1980-82 under Sam Rutigliano, and coached for the Browns (as secondary coach and defensive coordinator) 1985-88 under Marty Schottenheimer.
Bud Carson (Cleveland Head Coach 1989-90) served as Defensive Coordinator for Steelers 1972-77 under Chuck Noll (Carson was defensive coordinator for five years and helped build the Steel Curtain; in his first game as Browns head coach in 1989, he handed Noll and Steelers their worst loss in franchise history).
Best Pony Backfield:
Pittsburgh : 1976 – Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both exceed 1000 yards.
Cleveland : 1985 – Kevin Mack and Ernest Byner both exceed 1000 yards.
* The phenomenon of two teammates both rushing for 1000 yards in the same season has only happened six times in NFL history.
Best Player Interaction with Idiot Browns Fan:
Dumbest Quarterback Decisions, Franchise History:
Pittsburgh : Cutting Johnny Unitas (1955), Passing on Dan Marino (1983)
Also considered: trading away Earl Morrall (1958) and cutting Jack Kemp (1957),
Cleveland : Passing on Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Drafting Johnny Manziel (2014)
Also considered: drafting Brandon Weeden (2012) and drafting Brady Quinn (2007)
* Bonus dumb move they BOTH made: Cutting Len Dawson.
The Steelers, who drafted Dawson in 1957, cut him in 1959; the Browns who acquired him in 1960, cut him in 1961. Dawson went on to the Hall of Fame after starting two of the first four Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs.
HEAD TO HEAD:
Pittsburgh : 75 – 58 – 1
Pittsburgh : 2 – 0
Pittsburgh : 1w (or 7-0-1, depending on how you quantify that tie)
Pittsburgh : 12 games (2003-09)
Cleveland : 8 games (1950-53)
October 7, 1950
Browns had just entered the league, after winning all four AAFC crowns. They would finish the 1950 season 10-2, and win the NFL championship. The Steelers would finish 6-6 (which qualifies as a gigantic success for the floundering franchise). In this contest, Paul Brown, Otto Graham, and company jumped out to 20-point leads twice, and were never really challenged. Do-everything Steelers quarterback, Joe Geri (who?), led the team in passing (9-18, 122yds, 1TD, 1INT), rushing (23 carries, 145 yards), and kicked a field goal and both PATs. (Take that, Lamar Jackson.) Geri wound up a first-team All Pro and I can’t believe I’ve never heard of him.
Oh, also, the Browns would defeat this team again in two weeks, 45-7. That was a pretty good era for Cleveland.
Most Recent game:
October 28, 2018
The day after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Squirrel Hill, the Steelers hosted the Cleveland Browns and won a game that wasn’t this close. Antonio Brown and James Conner each scored two touchdowns, and Joe Haden recorded his only interception against the team that drafted him – picking off Baker Mayfield in the second quarter. The following day, Browns head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley would both be fired.
Biggest Game in the Series:
January 5, 2003 (AFC Wild Card Game)
I am surprised to note that this is most consequential game in a storied rivalry. It is the only playoff game the Cleveland Browns have played since their reboot in 1999, and had they won, would have been the team’s first road playoff victory since 1969. For the Steelers, this game represented the biggest playoff comeback in team history, as the team trailed by as much as 17 early in the second half.
On the arm of Kelly Holcomb, the Browns had jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead, and controlled most of this contest. Cleveland offensive coordinator Bruce Ariens (yup) dialed up a wild game plan, and Holcomb wound up throwing for 429 yards and three touchdowns. The Browns were uneven though, highlighted by Kevin Johnson’s four catches for 140 yards (on 12 targets, though), versus William Green’s 25 rushes for only 30 yards. Green’s inability to run out the clock would probably doom the Browns in this one.
Cleveland led 33-21 with only 3:06 left in the game, when Steeler Tommy Maddox (the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year for 2002) hit Hines Ward (11 catches on the day) for a five yard score. After forcing a punt in the final minutes, Maddox brought the Steelers back down again, hitting Ward and Plaxico Burress downfield twice each and leading to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s game winning touchdown with 54 seconds left.
Unfortunately, this game didn’t amount to much because Steelers lost next week to the Tennessee Titans, when Dewayne Washington was flagged for roughing the kicker in overtime, giving Tennessee a short kick and victory. But for one week, the Steelers and Browns made the scoreboards spin.
Other Memorable Games:
September 9, 2018
Opening week last season, this is the only tie ever between these two teams. A case study in the “every game counts” theory, this tie probably cost the Steelers a playoff berth in 2018. It may go down as a coming out party for T.J. Watt, who recorded three sacks and blocked a kick. It may have signaled the rough year ahead for Chris Boswell, who missed a potential game-winning field goal late. It may also represent the complicated blessing that is James Conner, who was pressed into duty when LeVeon Bell surprisingly declined to report and sign his franchise tag, exploding for 192 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns, but also lost a late fumble, and immediately stopped running with an edge, as the Steelers failed to put this game away. (It may also be memorable as one of Ben Roethlisberger’s worst games, as Big Ben committed five turnovers.) But I think what most people remember is that, after an 0-16 season in 2017, the Cleveland Browns didn’t lose. They didn’t win either, but when your team is on a 1-31 streak, moral victories often as good as it gets.
October 17, 2010
A blowout win on the way to their third Super Bowl berth in five years, this game barely registers in Steelers history. I include it here because this is the week James Harrison obliterated both Mohamed Massaquoi and his former college teammate, Josh Cribbs, with then-legal sledgehammer hits. After the contest, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (responding to PR pressure after Rutgers player Eric LaGrand was paralyzed on the field) made a no-warning example of Harrison, fining the linebacker an unprecedented $75,000 for the two hits, neither of which were flagged in-game. Harrison, always known as a bully (see also: “Deebo”) nonetheless did not have a reputation as a dirty player coming into this week. One of the other players singled out that day (Brandon Meriweather) had a much more legit claim to be the face of dirty play, but somehow (probably because he was a better player) James Harrison wore the albatross. In a galling follow-up, the NFL itself sold photos of Harrison’s hit on Massaquoi on their own merch website.
This was also the year that defenders realized they could tee-off on Big Ben with little repercussions, again for PR reasons (following Roethlisberger’s suspension), and that Hines Ward’s crackback blocks began to be criminalized. One could be forgiven for thinking the NFL had decided to cripple the Steelers by hook or by crook. That the team won the AFC anyway that year was nothing short of spectacular. Their loss to the Packers in Super Bowl 45 was tragic (to my thinking) partially just because I thought the Steelers deserved the retribution against Goodell and the morality police.
December 28, 2008
December 24, 2005
Both of these games were the home stretch of seasons that ended with the Steelers winning the Super Bowl. Neither are important in and of themselves, but there’s a lesson in here: keep an eye out if the Steelers shut out the Browns in December. A Lombardi may follow.
September 12, 1999
This was Cleveland’s home opener on their return to the league after Art Modell had moved the original franchise to Baltimore. Welcome back.
January 7, 1995 (AFC Divisional Playoffs)
Steelers complete a three-game sweep of Bill Belichick’s Browns by beating them in the playoffs, ending their most successful season on his watch. He’ll be fired the next year after his Browns collapse to 5-11 (0-2 against the Steelers). I’ve always thought Belichick, like Richard Nixon, probably keeps an enemies list. I’ll bet he hates the Steelers for life for this one.
September 10, 1989
October 15, 1989
In opening weekend, the Browns hand the Steelers their worst loss in team history. Then (in the coaching job of his life) Chuck Noll turns around this Bad News Bears squad, and they beat the powerhouse Browns in Cleveland in week 6. Up and down all year, the young Steelers wind up (somehow) in the playoffs. After beating the Houston Oilers in the House of Pain (the nail in Jerry Glanville’s coffin) during the Wildcard round, the Steelers nearly get a rubber match in Cleveland for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Instead Noll’s team loses in the Divisional round 24-23 to the Denver Broncos, who will go on to beat Cleveland in the AFC Title game for the third time in four years.
This is probably my all-time favorite Steelers squad ever.
October 10, 1976
In 1976, the two-time defending champion Steelers opened with their eyes closed. They began with a blowout loss to their bitter rival, the Oakland Raiders, and fell to 1-4 with this loss to the Browns. Against Cleveland, the Steelers’ didn’t just lose the game; the Browns otherwise-unremarkable DE Turkey Jones famously pile drove Terry Bradshaw into the turf after the whistle had blown, knocking the quarterback unconscious, and taking him off the field for two months.
In the aftermath, the Steelers defense held a players-only meeting, and came out the following week maniacally focused. They won their next nine games, giving up a grand total of 27 points, and pitching five(!) shutouts. Meanwhile, the aforementioned duo of 1000 yard rushers, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier (only the second teammates ever to go over the mark), had their historic season in 76, allowing rookie Mike Kruczek to win out without throwing a single touchdown pass. This was perhaps the greatest defense in NFL history; Dan Rooney always said it was the best Steeler team.