November 20, 2016
Jan 3, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass during the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Steelers beat the Browns 28-12. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
BEREA, Ohio – If you're looking for someone to tell you that Browns-Steelers has lost some of its luster over the years, don't ask Ben Roethlisberger.
"Heck no," the Steelers quarterback said earlier this week in a conference call with reporters. "This is still a huge rival for me, especially me personally."
The story of Roethlisberger and the Browns has been told before – they, of course, passed on him in the 2004 draft and he is 19-2 against them since. There's also that part about the two Super Bowl wins.
"It is Ohio. It is the Browns," Roethlisberger, an Ohio native who played at Findlay High School, said. "I thought I was going to go to the Browns. I am kind of over that, but for me, this is AFC North football. Like I said, it is the Browns. This is a huge rivalry for us."
That passion for the rivalry from Roethlisberger might be a surprise to Joe Thomas. No one currently on the Browns roster has played in more of these games than the left tackle -- he says the Thursday night win in 2009 is one particular matchup that stands out to him. Thomas believes it's a game that means more to the Browns at this point than the Steelers.
"They've had our number for a while now, so I don't think it's a game that they circle on their schedule any more than the next," Thomas said, "but, certainly for us, it's still a big deal. It's a big deal for our fans. It's a big deal for our organization."
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was more measured than his quarterback when it comes to the rivalry.
"I have respect for it," he said. "I have respect for the tradition."
Tomlin's follow-up to that, though, probably explains the state of the rivalry better than anything.
"I have respect for the now," he said. "It is a big game for us. Obviously, it is AFC North football. We have seven games left on our schedule and four are against the North. These AFC North road games are huge for us so we respect it and respect it in the right ways."
The Steelers, of course, despite their 4-5 record and current four-game losing streak going into Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium, are still fighting for the division title. They trail the Baltimore Ravens by one game and have the same number of losses as the third-place Bengals, who are 3-5-1. The Ravens play at Dallas this week while the Bengals visit Buffalo. The fact that the Steelers still play the Browns twice beginning with today's matchup might give them the inside track.
Meanwhile, the Browns are still seeking their first win.
"It's just a game because right now we're not in a situation to be worried about rivalries," wide receiver Terrelle Pryor said. "We've got to get a win. It don't matter who it is. It don't matter who we're playing. We have to get a win."
Pryor acknowledged that things would be different if the Browns were contending. In that case, he said, "it would be big like that."
Pryor still finds himself in the middle of it all, though. The native of Jeannette, Pa. -- a city less than an hour southeast of Pittsburgh -- said he didn't grow up a Steelers fan and said he didn't pay much attention to Browns-Steelers growing up. But he is part of a group chat with about 15 of his friends that has been active this week, telling him to "take it easy" on their team.
More than anything, Pryor has seen the passion Steelers fans have and understands, from a team standpoint, that's who the Browns want to become.
"As a kid, you don't really understand the significance of how people love the Steelers," he said. Even some places, in Ohio there is Steelers stuff around, and it is a great organization. That is somewhere we want to be, and we want to be great and bring championships here, and I think we can, but this is the test. First test, and we have to beat them."
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who has been on both sides of the rivalry, echoed Pryor's sentiments.
"We want to get where they are at, so the competition is great for us," Horton said. "I love being in this division because really it is year in and year out probably one of the better divisions in the league as you go through and watch the teams play. It gives us a standard to kind of measure ourselves to where we want to be."
Different coaching staffs have taken different approaches. Former head coach Mike Pettine often talked about educating his team on Browns history, including the Steelers rivalry. Pettine beat the Steelers once, a 31-10 shocker in 2014 at FirstEnergy Stadium that eventually helped propel the Browns to first place in the division before the season collapsed. That was a bittersweet memory for Thomas.
"It was obviously one of our best games against the Steelers, winning by a significant margin. It was a lot of fun," he said. "Unfortunately, (former Browns center) Alex (Mack) broke his leg in that game, so that's memorable for a bad reason."
Cornerback Joe Haden said head coach Hue Jackson has acknowledged the rivalry and its importance this week.
"I think that this is the biggest rivalry that we have," Haden said. "Baltimore is a big rival; Cincinnati is; but this one tops them all."
Middle linebacker Christian Kirksey called Steelers week a big one.
"We know how important it is to the city," he said. "That's one thing, playing football, you want to do it for the city, do it for the fans, do it for your teammates, so it's definitely a big week for us, every week is a big week for us in the National Football League, but just to have that history with them, it's a good week for us."
And, just in case winning for the city isn't enough, the Browns owners, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, used to have an ownership stake in the Steelers.
"I think it's always a big emphasis around this team, as far as I've been here, to play well and try to beat the Steelers," Thomas said.
That being said, the win-loss record has been heavily lopsided dating to before the franchise's move to Baltimore. Ever since Eric Metcalf electrified Municipal Stadium with two punt return touchdowns in a 1993 victory, the Browns have beaten the Steelers just six times.
It's not hard to notice that, this week in particular, there hasn't been much buzz leading up to a game that used to inspire many an argument in school hallways and at least merited some level of national attention.
The thing about rivalries, though, is it doesn't take much to wake them from their dormant state.
"It's just a matter of getting the Browns back to respectability and turning this team into a winner," Thomas said, "and then it's going to be a great rivalry again."