Steelers’ matchup with Browns brings amped-up sense of physicality to rivalry
When the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Ohio, they are used to encountering the type of physical, and occasionally reckless, brand of football that was on display Thursday night.
It’s just that they expect to face it when visiting their divisional neighbors in the southern part of the state, not when they venture up the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
In defeating the Steelers, 21-7, the Cleveland Browns announced an emphatic return to the long-time rivalry by scoring their first win in the series since 2014. They did so with a chippy style of play, and an infamous late-game skirmish, that conjured memories of hard-hitting games that typically involve the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.
Before Myles Garrett wrestled off Mason Rudolph’s helmet and swung it at the Steelers quarterback in the waning seconds, the Browns already had knocked Steelers wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson from the game with shots to the head.
Johnson, in fact, was bleeding from the ear after Browns safety Damarious Randall delivered a helmet-to-helmet blow near the Steelers sideline that led to his ejection.
“The NFL has to take care of that,” guard David DeCastro said. “That’s not our job. … They’ve got their work cut out for them in the front office. It will be interesting to see what they will do with all that happened.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell meted out justice Friday morning when he suspended Garrett indefinitely, at least through the remainder of the season, and gave the Steelers’ Maurkice Pouncey and the Browns’ Larry Ogunjobi suspensions of three games and one game, respectively. Those penalties stemmed from the melee with 8 seconds remaining.
Punishment for the personal fouls committed earlier in the game will be decided next week, although indications are Randall will not be suspended. Browns cornerback Greedy Williams also should expect a fine for his shot on Smith-Schuster.
“To me, it’s football,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said about the physicality prevalent Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium. “I try not to get caught up in the outside buzz. We’ve played the Bengals for years where everything was chippy.”
What transpired against the Browns resembled the Steelers’ visit in December 2017 to Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals accumulated 13 penalties for a franchise-record 173 yards in a 23-20 loss to the Steelers.
The game will be remembered most for Ryan Shazier sustaining his spinal-cord injury while making a first-quarter tackle. After that, it devolved into a battle of attrition, much like what unfolded in Cleveland. The Bengals lost four players as a result of vicious hits, including Vontaze Burfict and Joe Mixon to head injuries.
Smith-Schuster was suspended one game for decking Burfict with a blind-side block and standing over the fallen Bengals linebacker. Bengals safety George Iloka initially was suspended one game for a helmet-to-helmet blow delivered on a touchdown catch by Antonio Brown. It was converted to a $36,000 fine upon appeal.
The NFL doled out $68,000 in fines the next week after docking players from the Steelers and Bengals a combined $145,000 for altercations from a December 2015 game and $84,000 from the wild-card game in the 2015 postseason.
This time, the Steelers and Browns franchises already have been fined $250,000 in the wake of the Garrett-Rudolph incident. Players who left the bench to participate in the brawl also will be lighter in the wallet after the NFL concludes its investigation.
“It wasn’t getting out of hand,” cornerback Joe Haden said about what happened in the first 59 minutes, 52 seconds of the game. “We were playing physical. We don’t like them, they don’t like us and it’s a rivalry. People were making hits, people were making plays. Everybody was jacked up. That happens all the time.”
Whether it was their intention, the Browns made a statement that they no longer are the weaklings of the AFC North and can bring a physicality to the field that usually is seen during Steelers-Bengals and Steelers-Ravens showdowns.
“They played that way, and I like it,” Steelers linebacker Mark Barron said. “I like that. It is good. Intense environments, we have to thrive in it.”
After racking up eight penalties for 121 yards, the Browns lead the NFL with 84 infractions for 822 yards. Garrett already had been fined three times for $52,639 for controversial hits.
“I think there are a lot of things that you could probably point out and say, ‘Yeah, this is why this franchise has not had success in a long time,’ ” Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Discipline and accountability, but that is completely different than a lot of other things. Hopefully, it will be a one-time thing.”
The Steelers and Browns won’t have to wait long to find out. The rematch comes in two weeks at Heinz Field.
The question of whether there will be any carryover Dec. 1 was a hot topic in the aftermath of the wild finish Thursday.
“Oh, most definitely,” said running back Kareem Hunt, who suited up for just his second game with the Browns. “It’s going to be another fight, probably not like that, but it’s going to be another actual football fight.”
One that won’t include Garrett and Pouncey. Ogunjobi, who pushed a helmet-less Rudolph to the ground from behind, will be back after serving his one-game suspension.
In the meantime, the Steelers must prepare for a visit to another familiar venue, Paul Brown Stadium, site of many hostile encounters with the 0-9 Bengals, who are trying to recapture their identity.
“We can’t dwell on them,” cornerback Mike Hilton said about Cleveland. “We’ll see them in a couple of weeks, but we have to get ready for Cincinnati first.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .