Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount are gone, but there are shades of the Steel Curtain defense in Pittsburgh.
Against the Steelers’ AFC-leading defense, the Cleveland Browns lost eight fumbles to tie the NFL record, and lost the game, 35-0, to put Pittsburgh atop the AFC Central.
The Steelers (9-6) have a one-game lead in the division, but now face a win-or-else situation at Houston (8-7) next week.
A loss would cost the Steelers not only the division title, but a wild-card spot if the Bengals (8-7) beat Cleveland (3-12) at Cincinnati.
Because of their 2-3 division record and 6-5 conference record, the Steelers would lose any wild-card tiebreakers to Cincinnati, Houston or Seattle.
Sunday’s game was a complete reversal of Cleveland’s 51-0 victory at Three Rivers Stadium last year, when the Steelers committed eight turnovers.
Pittsburgh forced nine Browns’ turnovers--including three fumbles on the Browns’ first three plays from scrimmage--and scored on its four possessions to take a 35-0 halftime lead.
“I don’t care how good a team you are, you can’t fumble three times in three plays,” Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson said. “It’s easy to play well when you get that many turnovers.”
The Browns (3-12), who tied the NFL record for fumbles set by St. Louis against Washington on Oct. 25, 1976, have lost nine of their last 10 games.
“Is that a record for fumbles?” Cleveland Coach Jim Shofner asked. “Do we own it? It’s really difficult to talk about the game past that. I don’t even know how to evaluate a game like this. We never got a chance.”
The Steelers outrushed the Browns, 197-25, and outgained them, 329-158.
Quarterback Bubby Brister, who hadn’t thrown a touchdown pass in five previous appearances against Cleveland, threw four in fewer than 16 minutes as the Steelers’ turnover-fueled offense scored its first touchdowns in five games against Central Division opponents.
Brister completed 10 of 19 passes for 139 yards as the Steelers beat the Browns at Pittsburgh for the first time since 1985.
The Steelers have not allowed a touchdown in 14 quarters. They have not allowed a second-half touchdown in five games and have surrendered just one in the last eight.
“All year long the defense has set the tone for this team,” said rookie running back Barry Foster, who gained 100 yards in 16 carries. “The offense is playing off those guys and get intensity from them because they’re always intense.”
Cleveland quarterback Mike Pagel, playing in place of the injured Bernie Kosar, fumbled while being sacked by Bryan Hinkle on the Browns’ first play from scrimmage and Donald Evans made the first of his two fumble recoveries.
The officials then ruled Mike Mularkey stepped out of bounds on his apparent 20-yard touchdown reception on the Steelers’ first play, but replay official Al Sabato reversed the call to give Pittsburgh a 7-0 lead with 2:31 gone.
Jarrol Williams, who later forced another fumble, then recovered the first of Eric Metcalf’s three fumbles.
Four plays later, Brister connected with rookie Chris Calloway on a 20-yard completion for his first NFL touchdown.
The 35-point victory margin was Pittsburgh’s largest against Cleveland since the Steelers won, 42-6, in 1975. The shutout was Pittsburgh’s second in a rivalry that dates to 1950. Pittsburgh won, 30-0, in 1972.