By Tony Grossi
An hour after the game, Joe Haden still clutched the football he intercepted. It was one of eight defensive takeaways by the Browns in their 20-14 victory over the hated Pittsburgh Steelers.
“T.J. (Ward) was hitting people so hard. Everybody was hawking the ball. This game we played a full four quarters,” Haden said. “I was 0-4 against them. I know it was big for me. This is one of the best wins I’ve had.”
So don’t dismiss this Browns’ win -- their third in 11 games -- as tainted because the Steelers were down to third quarterback Charlie Batch, or because the game was still nervously close until the final Pittsburgh turnover on the last, hopeless play of hot potato laterals.
The Steelers were beat up and unglued on offense. On a cold but sunny and dry day, they fumbled five times and were intercepted three times. That’s unbecoming of a resilient team making a run for the playoffs.
In fact, they did not qualify for the playoffs when losing to the Browns on four other occasions since 1999. This fifth loss in 14 years of the Browns’ expansion era could be just as costly.
The Steelers dropped to 6-5, and have all-important division meetings with Baltimore and Cincinnati to come. They hope to have Ben Roethlisberger back to face the Ravens next Sunday. But the Browns put a hurtin’ on them physically and psychologically.
And that should be satisfying to Browns fans, whose support till the end was noted by many of the players.
“I know the fans are loving it right now. They’re probably out there right now fighting some Pittsburgh fans. I feel good for them,” said defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who climbed on Batch for the team’s lone sack and had one of the five fumble recoveries.
“It felt good so have everyone sticking with us to the end,” said returner Josh Cribbs, whose personal record against the Steelers improved to 2-13.
After the game, coach Pat Shurmur addressed the numerous rookies in the locker room and said, “You all are 1-0 against Pittsburgh.”
That includes Brandon Weeden, who became only the second rookie quarterback to beat the zone blitz defense of Dick LeBeau in 16 games since he returned to Pittsburgh as defensive coordinator in 2004.
Weeden wasn’t around to enjoy it. He suffered a concussion on his final pass with 5:24 to go when his helmet apparently made contact with teammate Joe Thomas’ knee. Weeden’s status for next Sunday’s game in Oakland is uncertain. Colt McCoy mopped up by handing off to Trent Richardson six times in his first two series on the field this year.
The best you might say about Weeden’s day is he wasn’t as bad as Batch.
He threw a 5-yard TD to tight end Jordan Cameron to offset a Pick 6 to linebacker Lawrence Timmons on his first offensive series. For the game, Weeden was 17 of 26 for 158 yards. He was sacked four times, but didn’t lose the ball, which was important in a tight contest. Pittsburgh’s almost instantaneous 7-0 lead was the biggest of the day.
“I’m surprised it was that close given the turnover situation,” sniffed Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Indeed, the last time a Browns’ team had eight defensive turnovers, it won in Pittsburgh, 51-0. That was a lifetime ago, in 1989. Nothing is that easy anymore for the franchise.
The Browns did turn three of the eight turnovers into points – a Phil Dawson field goal, Weeden’s TD throw to Cameron, and Richardson’s 15-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
Richardson persevered through another laborious day. He carried 29 times for 85 yards – a 2.9 average – and had four catches for 27 yards.
“That’s the best defense I played against since I’ve been in the NFL – hands down,” Richardson said. “That was probably the hardest-hitting team I’ve played against so far.”
And yet the Browns hit harder.
Tomlin came into this game hoping for one of his running backs to ease the load from the lightly-used, 37-year-old Batch. But the coach had no tolerance for fumbles. Every time a back lost a fumble, Tomlin benched him. Eventually he ran out of backs because each of his four active running backs lost a fumble.
“That’s something that is unheard-of,” said Batch, who was forced to throw 34 times and limped out with a passer rating of 38.7. He was intercepted by Haden, defensive tackle Billy Winn on a tip by Haden, and Sheldon Brown.
The Browns who forced the fumbles were defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, defensive end Juqua Parker, Ward and linebacker Kaluka Maiava. Ward was credited with a fifth force on the last play of the game.
In the jubilant locker room, owner Jimmy Haslam was all smiles and fielding questions. He joined the rookies in going 1-0 against the Steelers. It meant a lot more to him since he was a minority partner in the Steelers the previous four years.
“The biggest thrill was to see who leaving early – Steelers fans,” Haslam said. “It was great to see our crowd – a tremendous crowd – everybody standing and cheering at the end. I’ve been here the other way. A great win for our team. Great win for our fans.
“It’s big. Not just for me, but it’s big for our franchise. We’ve got a young team. Most of these guys have no idea what our record is against the Steelers and how the rivalry has become one-sided.”
At the end of the national telecast of the game, CBS announcer Kevin Harlan disclosed that it was the last game for Mike Holmgren with the Browns. A club spokesman confirmed that Holmgren will now depart the organization. Holmgren will have a final press conference on Monday.
So Holmgren can say at least the Browns notched one win against Pittsburgh on his watch.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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