CLEVELAND: As Josh Cribbs walked into the tunnel and out of the cold, whipping wind Sunday afternoon at Cleveland Browns Stadium, he was convinced a storied rivalry had just been revitalized.
The Browns took some lumps and lost rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the fourth quarter with a concussion, but they used eight takeaways to prevail 20-14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, snapping a four-game losing streak against their AFC North foe and giving new owner Jimmy Haslam a victory over his old team. After suffering a significant blow to their playoff hopes, several Steelers players left the field without shaking hands with their counterparts, and the Terrible Towels that often invade Browns Town were tucked away.
“For their fans to come here like they own us, and then for us to get this win at home, as I walked in the locker room, I was pretty much like, ‘Get out of here’ to their fans,” said Cribbs, the Browns’ veteran return specialist. “ ‘Take your towels and go back across the border.’ Our fans deserve that win. They deserve the bragging rights, and we kicked their tails. We deserved that win right there, and we got it.”
The Browns (3-8) have defeated the Steelers (6-5) only twice in the past 18 meetings and are now 5-23 against them since the expansion era began in 1999. Haslam, though, is 1-0 against Pittsburgh. In 2008, he bought a minority stake, 12.5 percent, in the Steelers and is still in the process of divesting it.
“We want to re-establish the rivalry, and this is a great place to start,” Haslam said in the locker room after congratulating players. “It was good to see their fans leaving and our fans staying and cheering.”
It also was President Mike Holmgren’s final game with the Browns, a team spokesman said. The Browns went 12-31 during Holmgren’s tenure, but sent him a parting gift with their first win over the Steelers since Dec. 10, 2009, and their second divisional win of the season.
None of it would have been possible without the Browns compiling five fumble recoveries and three interceptions against an offense led by Steelers third-string quarterback Charlie Batch, who played because starter Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder/ribs) and backup Byron Leftwich (ribs) are injured. It was the first time the Browns had eight takeaways since Sept. 10, 1989, and the first time an NFL team created that many turnovers since the New Orleans Saints did it Oct. 28, 2001.
“We’re just ball hungry right now,” said strong safety T.J. Ward, who had a team-high two forced fumbles. “We know we have to get the ball and give our offense opportunities. We’ve got a lot of guys out there hungry to get the rock.”
The Browns even ended the game by forcing a turnover. As the Steelers attempted desperation laterals with no time left, Ward forced wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to fumble, and linebacker Craig Robertson recovered at Pittsburgh’s 27-yard line. Cornerback Joe Haden, who returned to action after missing a game with an injured oblique muscle, also had a crucial interception at the Browns’ 19 with three minutes remaining.
“We gave up some tough yardage toward the end and a couple penalties here and there,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “But for the most part, we stopped the bleeding and we finished the game.”
The Browns trailed 14-13 at halftime after Steelers running back Chris Rainey rushed for a 1-yard touchdown with one second left in the first half. But after cornerback Sheldon Brown picked off a pass from Batch, the Browns took control at the Steelers’ 31, and three plays later, rookie running back Trent Richardson followed the lead block of fullback Alex Smith and burst up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown to give the Browns the lead for good with 5:19 left in the third quarter.
“It was a counter play for us,” said Richardson, who had 29 carries for 85 yards against the Steelers’ No. 1-ranked defense. “Alex Smith pulled around, and when he hit the dude dead in his mouth, I knew it was going to be a touchdown.”
The Browns scored 17 points off turnovers, the most since they posted 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 28, 2004. They started the game by essentially spotting the Steelers a 7-0 lead when Weeden’s pass to wide receiver Greg Little was tipped near the line of scrimmage by defensive end Brett Keisel, intercepted by inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and returned 53 yards for a touchdown with 13:49 left in the opening quarter.
The Browns, though, bounced back. Phil Dawson made field goals of 28 and 32 yards in the first half. And Weeden connected with tight end Jordan Cameron for a 5-yard touchdown pass in the front corner of the end zone with 12:20 left in the second quarter after defensive end Juqua Parker forced running back Isaac Redman to fumble and cornerback Buster Skrine recovered at the Steelers’ 10.
“We started off with a pick-six,” Jackson said. “Everyone in the stadium would have thought, ‘Here we go again.’ But guys kept fighting, and we were able to come up with the plays at the end.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.