Always my favorite part of Pittsburgh Steelers history is the Turnpike Rivalry the Steelers have with their nearest neighbors the Cleveland Browns. The Browns were originally a founder member of the All-America Football Conference formed in 1946. After it folded in 1949, the Browns joined Baltimore and San Francisco in moving to the NFL.
In the early years of the Pittsburgh rivalry, Cleveland was the domineering force as could be expected from a team that had won four straight AAFC championships. The Browns were that good. In 1948 they became the second professional football team to go unbeaten in a season following the L. A. Bulldogs of 1937.
The Steelers lost the first eight games played between the teams, although two of those defeats were by a heart-breaking solitary point.
The 1954 Steelers were coming off a season which has shown some promise under Coach Joe Bach with a 6-6 record. During training camp they were to be stunned by the resignation of their veteran coach. After losing three consecutive exhibition games, and with many of the local fans booing and jeering their players after a 36-14 home defeat to Green Bay, Bach decided to quit.
When he announced the departure of his coach, Art Rooney suggested, “The pressure is just too tough now. In the old days, a win or lose didn’t matter too much. Now it’s a cold-blooded business.”
Line coach Walter Kiesling took over the role of head coach. The “old man” of the coaching staff, Kiesling was a 29-year veteran of pro football, both as a player and coach. When Kiesling previously coached the Steelers after Johnny Blood resigned, they just missed out on winning the team’s first division title.
There was no immediate positive effect from the change in managers as the Steelers fumbled their way to another exhibition defeat against the Eagles. They came from behind to beat the Colts in Baltimore 21-16 before traveling to Arizona to lose 37-14 to the San Francisco 49ers.
Ray Matthews scored the Steelers lone touchdown and was also mentioned for his running, passing, draw plays, screens and other “trick” plays that kept the 49ers’ defense alert.
The Steelers faced the World Champion Detroit Lions in their final exhibition game, and they were overwhelmed 42-14. Matthews again contributed a touchdown. Despite the scoreline, it was felt the Steelers offense was improving while Kiesling continued to sign new players.
The regular season began with the Steelers going 2-0 before losing a close game in Philadelphia involving a controversial forward progress that the officials didn’t give. Kiesling had decided to forgo the field goal attempt from the Eagles’ 19 and went for it on fourth and inches which allegedly failed. The Eagles won 24-22.
The Steelers would next face their old rivals from Cleveland who were led by their star quarterback Otto Graham.
The (2-1) Steelers vs (1-1) Browns; October 17, 1954
After Johnny Lattner returned the ensuing kickoff 31 yards, the Steelers began their series on their own 34. Jim Finks led his team on a 10-play drive that finished with his touchdown pass to Ray Matthews who out jumped his defender to complete the catch.
The Browns hit back with a drive of 67 yards that ended with Otto Graham finding Dub Jones with a 37-yard touchdown pass. Cleveland took a 14-7 advantage into the second quarter when the Steelers came alive.
Halfway through the period, Finks found Fran Rogel with a 14-yard touchdown pass. The conversion failed wide right to the consternation of the fans. Their groans soon changed into cheers when Jack Butler intercepted a Graham pass attempt. After Butler returned it 41 yards for a score, the crowd were on their feet as the Steelers took their first lead of the game.
Cleveland fumbled the following kickoff to gift Pittsburgh a short field of 30 yards. Four plays later, Lattner skipped around left end for a 12-yard touchdown run to increase the Steelers lead to 27-14.
Cleveland was never going to make it easy for their opponents. Graham found Dante Lavelli with a 29-yard touchdown pass to reduce their deficit to seven points when the conversion attempt was blocked.
After already witnessing four scores in the quarter, the home fans were then treated to a touchdown of 78 yards. Matthews received Finks’ pass on the 38 before racing to the end zone for the score.
The Steelers halftime lead was 34-20 and the elated fans had an opportunity to catch their breath.
In the third quarter, an Ed Kissell interception saw the Steelers with another short field, starting their possession on their opponents’ 31. Matthews finished the drive with a touchdown run of 3 yards. Matthews further increased the Steelers’ advantage after adding a touchdown catch of 46 yards.
The final quarter saw late scores from both teams. Graham found Lavelli with a 24-yard touchdown pass. He also found Steelers’ Russ Craft for an interception that Craft returned 81 yards to complete the scoring and give Pittsburgh a resounding 55-27 victory. Their first ever over the Browns.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 55 vs the Cleveland Browns 27
Ray Matthews became the first Steeler to score four touchdowns in a game and is still tied with Chase Claypool (2020 vs Philadelphia) and Roy Jefferson (1968 at Atlanta) for the most touchdowns in a game.
The score was the second highest by the Steelers after a 63-7 victory over the Giants two years previously.
After the Steelers won their return game against the Eagles they began to fade, and eventually finished 5-7. The season finale was another heavy defeat in Cleveland, but the year would be remembered for the that first victory over the Browns.
When the seventies began, the Browns had a 31-9 lead in games won between the teams. With the hiring of the former Browns’ player Chuck Noll as their head coach, the tide slowly turned in the Steelers favor. They now lead the series 80-62-1 and we all know Ben Roethlisberger owned the Browns with his 26-2-1 record.