Art Rooney's Sr.'s professional football franchise joined the NFL in 1933, and Paul Brown's franchise joined the NFL in 1950 after years of dominating the All-American Football Conference. History also tells us the Steelers have played more games against the Browns than any other team during their decades in the NFL, and the 140th installment of this matchup will be staged at FirstEnergy Stadium at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Much has changed with these franchises, with the NFL, with the way the game is played at the professional level since the first time these teams met, on Oct. 7, 1950, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, but one element of the matchup has remained consistent over time. In that inaugural meeting, the Browns averaged 4.9 yards per rush, scored four rushing touchdowns, and posted a 30-17 victory.
And so a tone had been set. For the Steelers, the outcome of these games so often came down to their ability to handle fullback Marion Motley, and then later, Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, and Kevin Mack. Stop the run, or have no real chance to win the game. That again figures to be the case this Sunday.
The Browns offense, despite a bunch of injuries, still presents its opponents with the top rushing attack in football, by averaging 170.4 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry. Thirteen of Cleveland's 20 offensive touchdowns have come via the run, which makes the Browns and Tennessee Titans the only teams in any sort of playoff contention to have scored more than 50 percent of their touchdowns on the ground.
The Steelers defense will enter the game ranked 12th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (107.7) and 17th in average yards per carry (4.3), and the Steelers and Colts sit atop the league by having allowed only two rushing touchdowns so far this season, although Indianapolis has played seven games so far while the Steelers go to Cleveland at 3-3.
But what's somewhat concerning about the Steelers' run defense is how it has fared lately. In the 23-20 overtime win over the Seahawks on Oct. 17, Seattle rushed for 126 of its 144 yards in the second half to erase a 14-0 deficit and send the game into overtime before losing, 23-20. On Oct. 10, the Broncos averaged 5.9 yards per attempt in finishing the game with 106 net yards rushing, a total that included a 49-yard breakout by Javonte Williams.
And neither the Seahawks' nor the Broncos' running attack has been as potent as Cleveland's throughout the 2021 season. Against the Seahawks, the Steelers problems on run defense appeared to boil down to the two most fundamental areas of that phase: players along the line of scrimmage were getting blocked, and then the guys on the next level, including the inside linebackers, were not tackling consistently.
"We've had some challenges in the defensive line, not only the (injuries to Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu), but Carlos Davis also has missed some time," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "But that has provided opportunities for growth. I've been pleased with the general growth and development of Isaiahh Loudermilk. We're challenging Isaiah Buggs to step up and be a consistent varsity contributor. He's a guy who has been around here a number of years now, and opportunity is knocking for him (at nose tackle) due to the misfortune with Tyson, and so that's a component of this thing that makes football the ultimate team game."
Following the acquisition of Joe Schobert in a trade late in the preseason, the Steelers seemed to have a solid core of inside linebackers, in holdovers Devin Bush and Robert Spillane, plus Schobert. Those three have combined for 44 tackles through the first six games, but only three of those have been tackles for loss. Bush is just now approaching 12 months since having surgery to repair a torn ACL, and Schobert is relatively new to the team, but based on the expectations for the unit in the immediate aftermath of the Schobert trade, the inside linebackers have been something of a disappointment through this season's first six games.
"It goes hand in hand. The quality of their play could be better, but so could the play in front of them," said Tomlin when asked to evaluate his inside linebackers, "and so together we eat or do not. It's a collective thing. But much like we talk about rush and coverage, (the defensive linemen keeping blockers off the inside linebackers and the inside linebackers making plays to stop the run) work hand in hand. It is very difficult to evaluate inside linebacker play in a vacuum, free from other elements, particularly (free from) the men who play in front of them. We're working to gain some cohesion there, and a lot of the lack of cohesion has to do with some of the moving parts that we've had in front of them."
All of that is valid, but on Sunday the outcome very well could boil down to how well the Steelers defense handles the Browns running game. Just as it has for so many of the previous meetings between these teams.
"Fundamentally, guys have got to be in gaps, and guys have got to tackle well. There's not anything mystical," said Tomlin. "We've got to do a better job than we've done at times, and a lot of that has to do with some young guys gaining growth and development and exposure that's associated with play. It is reasonable to expect that to get better. It has in some instances. Loudermilk, Buggs, the guys we've been talking about, plus Henry Mondeaux, they're getting better, but it can't happen quick enough, particularly when you go into a stadium like we're going into a stadium this weekend."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"I like the overall health of our group. I don't know that health is going to be a significant issue for any of the guys in terms of availability as we go into this (game vs. the Browns), meaning the guys who are on the active roster right now. So that's a good thing. We got some decisions to make, but those are not real problems. Those are good problems to have. We have quality, capable tackles, and Zach Banner, for instance, is back as a full participant. We'll will sort through some of those things this week in terms of how we divide the labor up … No update on Stephon Tuitt. His return is not imminent this week. I don't anticipate it, although it's going well. He's progressing but not close enough for participation … I'm anticipating us activating (Anthony McFarland). I think the week's work will determine if there's a role (for him this week in Cleveland) and if there is, then what that role is."