Some sports rivalries are far less competitive than the grandeur and long-standing tradition might indicate. Examples that come to mind of one team traditionally dominating are Bears-Packers, Cubs-Cardinals and Dodgers-Padres.
It feels like Steelers-Browns should be on that mantle, right? Ben Roethlisberger went 26-2-1 in his career against the intra-division opponent that famously neglected to draft him in 2004. The Steelers have six Super Bowls and are atop the pantheon of stable NFL franchises, while the Browns have just two playoff appearances this decade and a list of quarterbacks/head coaches that rivals the signing of the Constitution.
In recent years, however, the tide has begun to turn orange.
Within the last seven meetings (including playoffs) between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the Steelers hold a 4-3 advantage over their Ohio nemeses. That’s a stark difference between the prior run, in which the Browns won just one of 13 contests.
Cleveland hasn’t left Pittsburgh victorious in the regular season since 2003; aside from the infamous 2020 playoff meltdown, the Steelers haven’t had to be too anguished over protecting home turf. Where things shift, though, is along the shores of Lake Erie.
In its last four matchups in FirstEnergy Stadium, Mike Tomlin’s team has gone a measly 1-2-1. Let’s briefly break down that quartet of games.
The Steelers opened the 2018 season in Cleveland in what figured to be an easy win, as the Browns had just completed a 1-31 stretch. However, the home squad erased a 21-7 lead courtesy of six turnovers and 116 penalty yards from the black and gold. 77 rushing yards from Tyrod Taylor, nearly a career high, lifted the Browns to a tie that was, effectively, a stunning upset.
2019 may have been the most notorious of them all. Like this year, this game was played under the primetime lights of Thursday Night Football, and sans Roethlisberger at that. Mason Rudolph tossed four interceptions, and Randy Fichtner’s offense accumulated only 236 total yards in an altogether boring game — that is, until the final 15 seconds.
With the Steelers attempting to obtain some momentum entering the following week, Rudolph was dragged down late by Myles Garrett, spurring one of the wildest fracases we’ve ever seen in sports. Garrett was ultimately suspended indefinitely for swinging Rudolph’s own helmet at his bare head (but reinstated that following February), while current Steeler Larry Ogunjobi was suspended two games. Full circle indeed.
In 2020, Rudolph was given a shot at vengeance. Pittsburgh couldn’t improve beyond its No. 3 playoff seed, so Tomlin rested Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and more in Week 17. The Browns looked firmly in control with a 24-9 advantage with most of the fourth quarter remaining, but Rudolph answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to Chase Claypool. Then, with one last shot, Rudolph marched Pittsburgh down the field again, finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for six — but the game-tying two-point conversion was unsuccessful. The Browns clung to a 24-22 win, securing a playoff berth for the first time in 18 years. The rest is history.
That brings us to last season, in which Roethlisberger made his last ever start against the Browns as a visitor. The Steelers amassed 370 total yards and had zero turnovers, but the team generated only 15 points, largely because of an injury to Chris Boswell on a botched extra point. Consequently, Pittsburgh had to go for two on each of its two touchdowns.
In classic fashion, No. 7 won the game on a fourth-quarter, 83-yard drive in which the quarterback connected with Pat Freiermuth on fourth and goal to give the Steelers the lead for good. Keith Butler’s defense came up particularly clutch, stripping Jarvis Landry inside the red zone and breaking up a fourth-down pass. A 50-yard link between Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson iced the game, preserving a black and gold win.
Of note, two of the four aforementioned games were not started by Roethlisberger. As such, the Steelers won’t be in unchartered territory when Mitch Trubisky takes the opening snap today (whether he finishes the game is, admittedly, a different question).
These four games have been chock full of zany plays, unbridled chippiness and air-tight football. More specifically, the combined score of Pittsburgh’s games in Cleveland since 2018 is actually 76-65 Browns.
Tomlin and Co. have had their share of eventful, draining games in The Land in recent memory; it’s clear that the Browns take pride in performing well against the Steelers, their overpowering kryptonite for so long. If history is any harbinger, Thursday night should provide an encore: yet another spirited, close affair between two AFC North rivals in dire need of a win.