The Cleveland Browns visit a house of horrors in week eight of the 2018 NFL season. It’s so ironic that Halloween is this coming week. The Browns visit Heinz Field to face their hated AFC North division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
How bad has it been for the orange and brown at the home of the black and gold. The Browns have not won at Heinz Field since October 5, 2003. It’s been so long, Sunday Night Football broadcasts were aired on ESPN. The primetime audience witnessed a 33-13 blowout by the Browns against the Steelers that night.
Cleveland has lost the next 14 meetings at the giant ketchup bottle. The Heinz Field jinx is almost equal to the Three Rivers Stadium jinx of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Browns lost 16-straight games to the Steelers back then. A loss Sunday would result in the Browns one loss from tying that mark.
A win Sunday would stop the losing streak at Heinz Field in addition to a 24-game road losing streak. So is that what the players and coaches are focusing on?
“We are not focused on that,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “We are focused on going in against a division opponent and winning the game. I think that is our primary focus and that is our attitude this whole entire week.”
“I think they understand what is at stake. You guys put it out there pretty clearly,” head coach Hue Jackson said. “We have not won on the road. We have not won in Pittsburgh. They hear it all. It is no question. We understand that we are in this race. You go win this game, you are way in this race. It is a huge game. It is a tremendous opportunity for us, and it is a huge stage so let’s go conquer this. Let’s go to Pittsburgh and play the best football game we have played all year and go win the game.”
When both teams take the field Sunday, there will be a dress code in effect. No ties allowed. The Browns and Steelers played to a 21-21 tie in Cleveland in week one. Both teams had multiple chances to win the game in regulation and overtime.
The Browns know they can play with the Steelers. So there is some unfinished business to attend to Sunday.
“We have to come back and punch them in the mouth,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “It is definitely a big game for us as it is for them. All division games are. So we have to be on our p’s and q’s. You do not know who is the better out of the two yet. We have to finish it off and see who wins Round 2.”
“You could not write this story any better,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “Coming off of a tough loss – three tough losses. Two of those, I think, we should have had, but that is the way the ball rolls some times. They are top of the division. We tied them at our place the first game of the season. Now, we get a chance to go up to their place. It is set up perfectly. Get this bad taste out of our mouths and start this run.”
The Browns will look a little different to the Steelers in the final meeting of 2018. Baker Mayfield makes his first start in the Browns and Steelers rivalry. Tyrod Taylor started the first meeting. Mayfield is ready for the challenge the Steelers defense will throw at him.
“They play hard. Obviously they have a lot of talent everywhere,” Mayfield said. “That is the obvious thing, but they play hard. They play with each other, and they feed off the energy. They feed off of the big plays that they are making. So it will be a great test for us.”
“He has to be ready for it. That is the situation that we are in,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He has to be ready. The name of the game, and what I just said – I have been on teams that have started slow and have not done the things necessary to win enough games –you keep doing what you are doing and you keep getting better. The teams that do that and that continue to progress week in and week out and just get better have a chance to play in bigger games at the end of the year.”
Baker also understands what this game means for Browns fans.
“Absolutely. Can feel it from our crowd,” Mayfield said. “That was the first game of the year so a little bit different, but yeah, absolutely. Can sense the physicality of this game. That is kind of how all of our division games go. I got a good taste for it.”
Two keys guys in the previous meeting are now gone, Carlos Hyde and Josh Gordon. Nick Chubb will be the featured running back. Landry has to be the leader of the wide receivers. The young guys also need to contribute.
The defense tallied six takeaways in week one. Denzel Ward intercepted Ben Roethlisberger twice in his first NFL game. Despite the six takeaways the Browns did not beat their hated rivals. The defense has to create turnovers and sack Roethlisberger to have any chance of winning Sunday.
“Just dialing in and everybody setting up doing what they are supposed to be doing and making plays,” linebacker Genard Avery said. “He is a great quarterback, and he knows how to read defenses well. He is a veteran so he is very experienced. We just have to put in time. That is a part of the game.”
The defense has to contain running back James Conner. The Browns were surprised at what the second year running back brings to the Steelers offense in the absence of Le’Veon Bell. Conner rushed for 135-yards. In addition, he recorded his first two touchdowns of his career. Cleveland has trouble defensing the run. So it has to be a high priority early in the game.
“He is a guy that can break a lot of tackles,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “We just want to make sure that we gang tackle. Eleven men to the ball. Just get him on the ground. One thing last time that we played them, we were not as disciplined as we are now with gap responsibility and things like that.”
“He looks fresh, he looks better and I think he has even improved since the first game that we played against him,” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. “He has grasped the moment, he has tackled the moment, he has done a good job with the moment and he is improving.”
Sunday also marks the return to Pittsburgh for Haley. The Browns offensive coordinator spent the previous six seasons in the same role with the Steelers. That’s not the only thing headlining Haley’s return to Heinz Field.
“The ironic thing for me in my 23 years, I have never played a game at Heinz Field as a visiting team,” Haley said. “My first time coaching at Heinz Field was as part of their coaching staff. So this will be my first visit to Heinz Field as a visitor, and I grew up there so it is a neat thing to me.”
The Browns are an eight and a half point underdog. CBS Sports will broadcast the game. Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts and Evan Washburn will call the game.