CLEVELAND – Based on where he grew up and then attended college, Ben Roethlisberger can be considered to have been right under the Browns' noses throughout his amateur football career. But when it was Roethlisberger's turn to enter the NFL via the draft, the Browns chose a tight end instead. Such has been a popular topic each time the Steelers make their annual trip to Cleveland. And the manner in which that tired topic was updated for this one was that Roethlisberger made the trip this year with the chance to tie Derek Anderson as the winningest starting quarterback on Cleveland soil since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999. The twist being that Anderson was a starter for the Browns. Get it?
In different circumstances, that might have turned out to be what the game would come to be about, but not this time. Not for this trip.
The Steelers' bus ride here this time was about more important things than statistical anomalies that find a clever way to poke fun at the recent futility of a long-time rival. Their season was hanging in the balance, and what they would end up doing on the floor of FirstEnergy Stadium was either going to save it or bury it.
Not bury it mathematically, as in elimination. But bury it in an avalanche of the negativity that assuredly would result from extending their losing streak to five at the hands of a winless opponent – and an 0-10 opponent at that.
No, the Steelers ended up snapping their losing streak and extending the Browns' by virtue of a 24-9 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium on a day when some of what contributed to that win had historical significance. Roethlisberger indeed tied Anderson's win total, and he also joined a very select group of NFL quarterbacks with 20 wins over a particular opponent. But the most significant event had to do with sacks and William Gay becoming the franchise's all-time sack leader.
And along the way, the Steelers saved their season.
First, though, the Harrison history.
By now, all discerning Steelers fans know the story of James Harrison's first NFL start, why he ended up getting that first NFL start, and that he recorded the first sack of his NFL career in his first NFL start. It was November 14, 2004, and the quarterback was Jeff Garcia and the site was this very same building, which at the time was going by the name of Cleveland Browns Stadium. That was where Harrison rang up No. 1, and yesterday it was where he rang up the one that pushed his total to 77.5 and nudged him above Jason Gildon's 77.0 to the top spot on the Steelers' sack parade.
Harrison got a lot of help from his friends, because the Steelers defense that arrived here with 13 sacks through the first nine games of 2016 rolled up eight against the Browns. Eight sacks was their highest single-game total since they also recorded eight sacks on Dec. 24, 2005. And the significance of that date should be apparent to those who've been paying attention in meetings, because Christmas Eve 2005 was the occasion of another Steelers game in this very same stadium, with that one's footnote being it was the first and only appearance of Nate Mallett on an NFL field during a regular season game.
Mallett's moment was brief, though, because Harrison perceived this inebriated Browns fan as a threat to the Steelers sideline, and so he body-slammed him to the grass and then held him there until police and stadium security could arrive to cart the intruder off to jail.
Now about that saved-the-season stuff. Well maybe not so much saved as it was that this victory will allow the season to continue without the negativity that was gathering and strengthening with every defeat. The Steelers have a whole bunch of stuff to work on and some of it they might never fix, but the AFC North Division suddenly looks very winnable and their 5-5 record has them tied for first with the Baltimore Ravens, who lost in Dallas. The Bengals are 3-6-1 after a loss to the Buffalo Bills, and following that game reports emerged regarding a torn ACL for Gio Bernard and a torn hamstring for A.J. Green.
As for the Steelers themselves, there were separate sightings of a pass rush and a dominant running attack, what with the aforementioned eight sacks distributed among Stephon Tuitt (2.5), Arthur Moats (1.5), Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier, Javon Hargrave, and Harrison; and Le'Veon Bell providing 28 carries of dominance for 146 yards (5.2 average) and a touchdown behind an offensive line that also didn't allow a sack in 36 pass attempts. Artie Burns had an interception and three of the team's eight passes defensed, and the run defense limited the Browns' respectable tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson to 20 yards on 10 attempts.
Game action from Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns.
But don't go and pre-order that AFC North Division Champions paraphernalia just yet, because the Steelers' red zone issues cropped up again (1-for-4), and that whole finding-another-receiver-to-complement-AB project doesn't seem to be progressing much at all. After you take away Antonio Brown's eight catches for 76 yards and Bell's eight for 55, the other four guys targeted combined to produce seven catches for 36 yards.
In 72 hours the Steelers will be in Indianapolis for a Thanksgiving night game against the Colts, and so there's not only little reason to celebrate 24-9 over an 0-10 opponent, but there's also little time to do it. But 24-9 over an 0-10 opponent was a win, and the Steelers boarded those buses and went to Cleveland needing nothing as much as they needed one of those.
OK, back to work.