Once upon a time, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns rivalry was among the fiercest rivalries in the NFL. The Browns' decline, along with the birth and emergence of the Ravens at the turn of the century, largely contributed to this rivalry losing a significant part of its luster. The rivalry does appear to be on the rise, however, as the Browns will take their 4-1 record with them to Heinz Field on Sunday to face the 4-0 Steelers. Not only are both teams legitimately good for the first time in a while, but there is also the narrative surrounding last year's fight between the two teams. Kareem Hunt, the Browns' talented running back, has dedicated the game to teammate Myles Garrett, who was suspended last season after his altercation with Steelers backup quarterback Mason Rudolph.
Before Sunday's game gets underway, we decided to take a numerical look at some of the historic moments that have helped define the Steelers-Browns rivalry, a rivalry that appears to be alive and well as it enters its eighth decade of existence.
Both of the Steelers' Hall of Fame coaches have close ties to the Browns. Chuck Noll, a Cleveland native, was drafted by Paul Brown following a successful college career at the University of Dayton. In 1954, his second season in Cleveland, Noll started seven games at right guard while helping the Browns their second NFL title. The following season, Noll started at linebacker, where he recorded five interceptions (with one pick-six) while helping Cleveland win back-to-back titles. Noll, following a seven-year playing career, immediately began his coaching career as an assistant with the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960.
Bill Cowher, after helping North Carolina state win back-to-back bowl games, cracked the Browns' roster as an undrafted rookie in 1980. That season, Cowher started two games at linebacker while seeing significant time on special teams for the Browns, who won the AFC Central that season after splitting their season series with the Steelers for the first time since 1976. Cowher spent another season in Cleveland before finishing his career with the Eagles. After a four-year playing career, Cowher returned to Cleveland as its new special teams coach in 1985. He also served as the Browns' secondary coach before following Marty Schottenheimer to Kansas City in 1989. Cowher was the Chiefs' defensive coordinator for three years before being named as Noll's successor in 1992.
The Steelers-Browns rivalry has had three notable skirmishes. The first occurred in 1976 when Joe "Turkey" Jones spiked Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw on his head during Cleveland's Week 5 win over the defending two-time champions. While the hit sidelined Bradshaw for six weeks, Pittsburgh won nine straight games after a 1-4 start. The Steelers' improbable run ultimately ended one game shy of the Super Bowl, as Pittsburgh fell to the eventual champion Raiders, 24-7.
The next incident took place in Week 10 of the 2004 season when Browns running back William Green and Steelers linebacker Joey Porter were ejected after the two exchanged punches during pregame warmups. Tensions were high heading into the game after Browns defensive tackle Gerald Warren threatened to go after Roethlisberger's head. Despite not having Porter, Pittsburgh, who went 15-1 during the '04 regular season, won the game, 24-10.
While nothing may rival Jones' hit on Bradshaw, Garrett's decision to hit Rudolph with his own helmet in Week 10 of the 2019 season comes close. Garrett, who was suspended for the rest of the regular season for his actions, will face the Steelers for the first time on Sunday since last year's altercation with Rudolph.
On September 10, 1989, the Browns handed the Steelers their most lopsided defeat in franchise history. Cleveland's defense, led by linebacker Clay Matthews and Carl Hairston and defensive backs Mark Harper and David Grayson, allowed just five first downs while returning two fumbles and an interception for a touchdown. Cleveland's offense, led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, out-gained Pittsburgh's offense, 357-53.
Opening day 1989 at Pittsburgh, Browns win 51-0 #Browns pic.twitter.com/KGWQNhsBoO— CleWest (@erjmanlasvegas) October 15, 2020
Remarkably, Pittsburgh, who followed up that performance with a 41-10 loss to the Bengals the following week, actually beat the Browns when the two teams met again in Week 6, as Pittsburgh picked off Kosar four times in a 17-7 win. The '89 Steelers, after a horrendous start, upset the Oilers in the wild card round before nearly pulling off another upset in Denver. The Browns, for a third time in four years, would fall to the Broncos one game shy of the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh was the first team Cleveland faced when the franchise returned to the NFL after a three-year absence. On September 12, 1999, the Browns hosted a Steelers team that was coming off a 7-9 season, the first losing season Pittsburgh had endured under Cowher to that point. And while the '99 Steelers would finish with a disappointing 6-10 record, they had no issues defeating an expansion Browns team in front of a nationally televised audience.
The Steelers' offense, led by quarterback Kordell Stewart and running back Jerome Bettis, piled up 33 first downs and 464 total yards while controlling the clock for nearly 48 minutes. Conversely, the Browns' offense, led by quarterback Ty Detmer, picked up just two first downs and 40 yards of total offense. The most memorable moment from this game -- from a historical standpoint -- took place when Hines Ward scored his first career touchdown with six minutes remaining.
Similar to what transpired in '89, the Browns rebounded from their opening game debacle, shocking the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Trailing by two points with under two minutes left, a critical roughing the passer penalty on linebacker (and current Titans coach) Mike Vrabel helped set up the Browns' game-winning field goal as time expired.
With starting quarterback Tim Couch out with an injury, Kelly Holcomb, who at that time had a 1-2 career record as a starter, was the Browns' starting quarterback heading into the franchise's first playoff game since re-entering the NFL in 1999. Playing on a muddy Heinz Field surface, Holcomb threw for 429 yards, which was at the time the third-highest passing total in postseason history. His third touchdown pass of the day -- a 15-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Northcutt -- gave the Browns a 24-7 lead three minutes into the third quarter.
Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox, a former draft bust who was given another chance with the Steelers after being named MVP during the XFL's inaugural season, threw three second-half touchdown passes that included a five-yard strike to Ward with just over three minutes left. After the Browns punted on their ensuing possession, two Maddox completions to receiver Plaxico Burress set up running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's game-winning touchdown run, as Pittsburgh prevailed, 36-33.
The last time the Browns were in the playoffs?— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) September 7, 2018
The @Steelers had an EPIC 17-point comeback victory in the 2002 AFC Wild Card game. #FBF pic.twitter.com/9JuYhZORJC
The Browns, who ultimately gave up on the Couch-Holcomb experiment after the 2003 season, have not qualified for the postseason since that game. Conversely, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls and have made the postseason 10 times since their comeback win over Cleveland.
A native of Finley, Ohio, Ben Roethlisberger has used the Browns passing on him in the first round of the draft as motivation every time he has faced them. Needless to say, Roethlisberger has owned the Browns over the years, has he has a record of 23-2-1 against Cleveland. That record does not include his 379-yard, three-touchdown performance in Pittsburgh's 30-9 win over the Browns in Week 10 of the 2015 season, when Big Ben, recovering from his own injury, replaced an injured Landry Jones after the game's opening drive.
Roethlisberger's 11 career wins at FirstEnergy Stadium was the most by a quarterback until Baker Mayfield matched that mark this past Sunday.
This number represents Bill Belichick's record against the Steelers as the Browns' head coach. Before winning six Super Bowls as the Patriots' head coach, Belichick served as the Browns' coach from 1991-94. Belichick won his first game against the Steelers, a 17-14 win midway through the '91 season. But after a 4-4 start, Cleveland stumbled to a 2-6 finish that included a Week 17 loss to the Steelers. Pittsburgh's 17-10 win over Cleveland was Noll's final game on the sideline.
Belichick's Browns would split their first four matchups against Cowher's Steelers before Pittsburgh won both regular season matchups in 1994. The '94 Steelers got a third victory over the Browns in the playoffs, as a dominant performance by Pittsburgh's defense spearheaded its 29-9 win. The Browns, who were swept by the Steelers the following season, relieved Belichick of his duties as the team began making plans to move to Baltimore before the start of the 1996 season. Belichick's four seasons in Cleveland produced a 34-44 regular season record, a 1-1 playoff record and a 3-8 record against the Steelers.
That was the Browns' record against the Steelers during their first 40 matchups against one another. Cleveland, who won its first nine games against Pittsburgh, went 5-1 against the Steelers during their three championship seasons during the 1950s. The Steelers started to turn the tide in 1959, a year after they acquired Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne from the Lions. Pittsburgh, led by Layne, Hall of Fame running back John Henry Johnson and Hall of Fame defensive end Ernie Stautner, split the next 16 games against the Browns, led by Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown and Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield. The Steelers actually defeated the Browns during their championship season of 1964. Cleveland did end the '60s on a high note, winning their final six games over the Steelers heading into the '70s.
This is the Steelers' record against the Browns since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999. Believe it or not, the Steelers were the only NFL team to split their first four games against the Browns upon their return to the NFL. Pittsburgh's struggles against Cleveland obviously didn't last, as the Steelers have lost just five games against the Browns since 2001. The Steelers' longest run of success against the Browns during this span took place from 2004-08, when Pittsburgh won 10 consecutive games in the series. Perhaps the most notable game during this span was the Steelers' 41-0 win over the Browns in Week 16 of the 2005 season, a win the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers needed to keep their playoff hopes alive. This was also the game that saw James Harrison body slam a fan that wandered onto the field during the game's closing moments.
This is the Steelers' home record against the Browns since 1970, the same year the Steelers moved into Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers won their first 16 games against the Browns at Three Rivers before Cleveland finally beat them in 1986. Pittsburgh is currently sitting on a 16-year home winning streak over Cleveland, who last defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 5 of the 2003 season, the year before the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger.
The Browns came close to getting their first win in Pittsburgh in 1978, forcing overtime before the Steelers won the game on a gadget play.
#TBT: Browns vs Steelers (1978)— Pittsburgh Clothing Co. (@PGHClothingCo) October 15, 2020
Bradshaw hands off to Bleier, who hands off to Swann, who pitches the ball back to Bradshaw, who throws a bomb to a wide-open Bennie Cunningham for the game-winning TD.
"And they're shaking Three Rivers Stadium right off its foundation!" pic.twitter.com/hHGAqOT7ck
Cleveland will look to get its seventh win in Pittsburgh over the last half century on Sunday, when the two teams add a new chapter to their 70-year rivalry.