If you're an old-fashioned football fan, there's no better way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon than watching the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns roll around in the mud, duking it out for four quarters. Real football played on real grass by real men. The Browns-Steelers rivalry, which dates back to 1950, is known as the Turnpike Series. The teams represent roll-up-your-sleeves, dirt-under-the-fingernails towns located 130 miles apart via the interstate.
And the similarities don't stop there. Cleveland coach Marty Shottenheimer grew up in western Pennsylvania in a burg named McDonald. He went on to become an All-America linebacker at Pitt. During his six-year pro career, Shottenheimer spent six weeks with the Steelers in 1971. Chuck Noll was the coach. He traded him to the Colts.
Noll, now in his 19th season as Pittsburgh's coach, was born and reared in Cleveland. From 1953 to '59, he played guard and linebacker for the Browns. Noll makes no secret about the importance he attaches to playing Cleveland. "When I first got here, I didn't think anything of the rivalry," says John Stallworth, who is in his 14th year with the Steelers. "Then I saw the way the coaches reacted to Browns games. Usually you can make mistakes in practice on Friday, and they'll be tolerated. But when we're playing Cleveland, mistakes stop on Wednesdays—or else."
Alas, Pittsburgh was still making them on Sunday, and the Browns rolled to a 34-10 victory, swelling their lead in the Turnpike Series to 44-31. The game was as bitterly fought as any of its predecessors. In fact, the teams were so busy despising each other that their antagonism took precedence over a common cause—the strike against the NFL owners, threatened for the next night—and the player representatives canceled a solidarity handshake at midfield. "This was one case where we didn't care what the union wanted us to do," said kicker Matt Bahr, the Browns' alternate player rep. "We didn't want to shake the Steelers' hands. We didn't want anybody to think we like them."
September 27, 1987
But there was more at stake here than bragging rights. Each team needed to get an early-season reading on just how good it was. Following two consecutive losing years, Noll had been searching his soul. His four Super Bowl victories, he decided, had made him complacent. He determined that it was time to get back to Steeler Football. Real football. So, he hired Mean Joe Greene, the Hall of Famer, to coach the defensive line and to teach the Steelers to be, well, mean. "We'd become rather wimpy the past few years," says Donnie Shell, Pittsburgh's veteran safety. "In films you could see we were running around people, not running into them."
Says Tony Dungy, the Steelers' defensive coordinator, "We became too concerned about what to run against an opponent's formation. Finally, Chuck said, 'Hey, just go out and hit somebody.' "
Noll's get-tough strategy appeared to be working as Pittsburgh manhandled San Francisco 30-17 in the season opener. Led by Mike Merriweather and Bryan Hinkle, two of the NFL's most underrated outside linebackers, the Steeler defense had three interceptions, forced one fumble, held the 49ers to 47 yards rushing and, most important, hit like the Steelers of old.
In their opener, a 28-21 loss to New Orleans, the Browns were a far cry from the team that reached last season's AFC Championship game. Perhaps they were lulled by favorable preseason prognostications and the enthusiasm of their fans. "As far as this community is concerned, we may as well skip the first 17 or 18 games and jump right into the Super Bowl," said quarterback Bernie Kosar before facing the Steelers. "We're getting away from what made us successful: taking it one play at a time, one game at a time."
The Browns' defense had looked awful against the Saints, particularly when it tried to stop the run. Cleveland certainly never drew a bead on Rueben Mayes, who rushed for 147 yards. Well, what a difference a week can make. For the game with the Steelers, Shottenheimer installed a variation of the Chicago Bears' old 46 Defense to stop the run. The Browns held Pittsburgh to only 58 yards on the ground.
It was a makeshift Pittsburgh offensive line that crumbled under the Browns' pressure. Injured left tackle Mark Behning had been replaced by Craig Wolfley, a guard who was playing only his third game at the position. Tunch Ilkin, the right tackle, was hampered by a sprained back. Right guard Terry Long, who had a bruised shoulder, was replaced briefly in the third quarter by rookie Paul Oswald.
Because they couldn't rush effectively, the Steelers played right into Cleveland's defensive game plan. "We wanted to force Mark Malone to throw," said Hanford Dixon, the Browns' All-Pro cornerback, referring to Pittsburgh's quarterback. "He doesn't have a lot of confidence in himself. We knew if we pressured him, he'd be erratic."
Erratic is too kind a word. The game was a 10-10 stalemate until Malone threw it away with 7:09 left in the third quarter. Four consecutive series. Four interceptions. Four Cleveland scores. The Pittsburgh defense was too pooped to be mean. Let's take it from the top:
•Browns inside linebacker Mike Johnson intercepts a pass intended for Louis Lipps at the Steeler 26. Five plays later a scrambling Kosar finds Gerald (Ice Cube) McNeil in the end zone for an 11-yard TD. Cleveland leads 17-10.
•Malone's bullet to Lipps ricochets off Lipps's stomach and into the hands of defensive back Chris Rockins at the Cleveland 30. Twelve plays later Jeff Jaeger kicks a 23-yard field goal. The score: 20-10. "I was in man-to-man coverage," said Rockins afterward. "When the receiver turned and looked for the ball, I did too. It was easy."
•Clay Matthews, the Browns' right outside linebacker, steps in front of running back Walter Abercrombie, grabs Malone's pass with one hand and rambles 26 yards for a touchdown. Cleveland's lead builds to 27-10. "It crossed my mind I might not make it to the end zone," said Matthews. "I was so excited, I held my breath the whole way. I'm lucky I didn't pass out."
•Malone tries to hook up with Charles Lockett at the Steeler 40. Matthews is there again. "They ran that play in the first quarter," Matthews said. "I recognized it the minute I saw it." Three plays later Kosar throws a 37-yard touchdown pass to Clarence Weathers to wrap up the scoring.
Malone, who completed 12 of 36 attempts for 151 yards and no TDs, refused to take any blame for the loss. "I think I was throwing the ball pretty well," he said.
Not as well as Kosar, who in only his third season as a pro, is already one of the best quarterbacks in the business. So he has an awkward throwing motion. So he runs like Gumby. Kosar more than makes up for his physical limitations with his intelligence. "Kosar mesmerizes me," says Shell. "He reads all the coverages at the line. Most quarterbacks read defenses as they drop back."
In some games Kosar will call as many as 20 audibles. "The coaches give Bernie a great game plan—the perfect offense against the perfect defense—and he remembers it all," says Cleveland center Mike Baab. "He always calls the right thing at the right time."
What Baab and his teammates really like about Kosar is that he's down-to-earth. The $5 Million Man hangs out with his offensive linemen. "Bernie can drink shots with us," says Baab.
Hey, whaddya expect? The kid grew up in Boardman, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. Half the town rooted for the Steelers, the rest were Browns fanatics. Kosar always rooted for the underdogs—the Browns—when he was a kid. "Bernie's a regular guy," says Baab.
Make that a real man.
"We wanted to force Mark Malone to throw.... We knew if we pressured him, he'd be erratic."