Nothing can boost the morale of a struggling Browns team and its depressed fan base quite like a rare win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“The first thing I heard from fans when I got to town was, ‘You beat the Steelers, and you don’t buy a steak for a long time,’ ” rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “I’m going to hold some of those people true to it.”
Weeden is among 23 players, including 17 rookies, on the 53-man roster who have never played in a Browns-Steelers game. They’ll get their first taste of the rivalry at 1 p.m. today at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
As the coaches and veterans give the newcomers a crash course on the importance of today’s game, there are at least five motivational forces they should include in the overview.
1. Public enemy No. 1.
Even though the Browns have a record of 2-8, they know a win over the Steelers (6-4) could provide restorative power in the final stretch.
“We know what this game means to the city and what it would mean to win,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “The season hasn’t gone the way we wanted, but a win would make it better.”
Since their rebirth in 1999, the Browns are 4-23 against the Steelers. They also have lost 16 of the past 17 meetings against their hated AFC North foe and are desperate to turn it around.
“You can feel the sense of urgency throughout the building, the preparation and the mental focus throughout the week,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “It’s something that, when I was a rookie, the veterans couldn’t put it into words.
“It’s definitely going to be one of those games, one of those hard-fought, nose-to-nose, grit-and-grind type of games. It always is. They don’t like us. We don’t like them.”
2. Impress the boss.
Technically, new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam can’t lose today because he still holds a minority stake in the Steelers, a reported 12.5 percent that he’s in the process of divesting. Still, Haslam obviously wants his new team to prevail against his old one.
“I understand the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland,” Haslam said Aug. 3 during his introductory news conference. “I get it, and our main goal is to return that to a real rivalry.”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur acknowledged the game will have a special meaning for his new boss.
“I don’t want to speak for Jimmy,” Shurmur said, “but I would imagine there’s more emotion involved with this one than some of the others.”
3. Spoiler alert.
Any hope the Browns had for making the postseason is long gone, but the Steelers are fighting for their playoff lives. Heading into today, they are slotted as the sixth and final seed in the AFC.
“We want to be their spoilers,” Jackson said.
It has happened before. In 2009, the Browns stunned the Steelers 13-6 in Week 14. The Steelers went on to win their final three games and finish with a record of 9-7, but they were haunted by their loss to the Browns and failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Said Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas: “Anytime we can be the spoiler like we were a few years ago when we played them on Thursday night and beat them — that hurt their chances of making the playoffs — I think that’s obviously the goal.”
The Browns haven’t defeated the Steelers since that upset in 2009.
4. Redemption for offense.
Rookie running back Trent Richardson blamed himself for the Browns’ 23-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last week because of his lack of production in the second half and overtime. Now he’s eager to prove he can finish strong against the Steelers, whose defense entered Week 12 ranked first overall, first against the pass and fourth against the run.
“Watching film, they’re the most put-together defense I’ve ever seen in the league so far,” Richardson said. “Those guys are well disciplined, and they love stopping the run and they’re going to put the big hit on you. So for me, I’ve got to do everything I can to get what they’re giving me.”
Weeden is also determined to be at his best against longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme that features plenty of zone blitzes. Weeden struggled with his accuracy against the Cowboys and gave up a strip-sack.
“When you lose a game, you’re on the plane, you’re watching the game, you’re like, ‘What could I have done differently to finish? What play could I have done here to maybe make the difference?’ ” Weeden said. “You always second-guess that part of it. It’s frustrating.”
The Browns failed to score a touchdown in both of their meetings with the Steelers last season, a trend Richardson and Weeden hope to end.
5. Golden opportunity.
The Browns will face Steelers third-string quarterback Charlie Batch because starter Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, ribs) and backup Byron Leftwich (ribs) have been ruled out. The Browns are careful not to underestimate Batch, who turns 38 on Dec. 5, but they also know they’re catching a break by avoiding Roethlisberger, who’s 14-1 against Cleveland.
“It’s one of those deals where we smell blood,” Jackson said. “Let’s take advantage of it. But you’ve got to respect them.”
The Steelers are also banged up at receiver — Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) is out and Antonio Brown (ankle) is questionable. Last week, they signed Plaxico Burress, who hasn’t played since last season.
Nevertheless, the Browns can’t assume anything will be easy.
“Regardless of who plays, we’ve gotta come ready to work,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “They could be down to their receiver at quarterback, and it’s not gonna guarantee anything for us. We’ve just gotta prepare the same way, come ready to play and finish the game.”
After all, losing to a depleted Steelers team would sting more than usual.
The Browns scrapped their plans to give fans white inflatable flags featuring their orange helmet logo before today’s game. The joint promotion by the Browns and Ticketmaster drew widespread criticism because white flags symbolize surrender.
“After further and careful consideration, we felt it was in the best interests of everyone involved that we not have a giveaway item at tomorrow’s game,” Neal Gulkis, the team’s vice president of media relations, said in a statement. “It is something that was intended to be fun for our fans and that they could rally around, and we regret that some didn’t perceive it that way. We want to thank all of our fans for their tremendous support and we look forward to seeing them out in force at the stadium tomorrow.”
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.