The Turnpike Rivalry continues this week when the Steelers travel to Cleveland for their 139th regular season meeting. The Steelers lead the series, including playoff games 79-61 with one tie, but it was a long time coming before the Steelers overhauled their opponents in victories.
The Browns were the class act of the All-American Football Conference when the rival pro football league competed against the NFL from 1946-49. After winning all four of the AAFC championship games, Cleveland joined the NFL in 1950 when the infant league folded. At the same time, San Francisco and Indianapolis also moved across into the NFL.
The Browns easily transferred their winning ways into the NFL while the Same Old Steelers continued to struggle for two decades.
It all changed as the sport entered the seventies after the Steelers hired a former Browns player as their new head coach. Chuck Noll was about to reverse the fortunes of Pittsburgh while Cleveland’s ascendancy began to decline.
At the beginning of 1974, Coach Noll and the Steelers were poised to take the final step towards greatness. Four future Hall of Famers were selected in the January draft. Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster went to Pittsburgh in what is considered to be one of the best draft classes of all time.
A six-week players’ strike from July 1st, which didn’t involve the rookies, allowed the coaches to focus on their new players. They would enjoy exceptional personal tutoring that would reap a big reward and benefit the team. Lambert and Swann were starters in week one with Swann catching a 54-yard touchdown pass.
When the two teams met in week six, it was Joe Gilliam who led the Steelers to a 20-16 win. Although Bradshaw then wrestled the starting position from Gilliam, his back problems would see Terry Hanratty named as the starter when they met again four weeks later in Cleveland. Hanratty had only thrown six passes all season,
Cleveland’s offensive tackle Doug Dieken knew what to expect when facing the Steel Curtain of L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Joe Greene and Ernie Holmes. “White is the kind of person that you fasten your chin strap on because he’s liable to take your head off,” acknowledged Dieken.
“Mad Ernie Holmes is the kind of guy that if you beat him in the game, he’s liable to take a snip shot at you afterwards,” Dieken added with a smile.
The Steelers had lost nine straight in Cleveland and only center Ray Mansfield on the current team had experienced the joys of a victory on the Lake. The game was the first home sell out for the Browns since the Steelers’ previous visit; such was the attraction for Cleveland fans to see their rivals fall.
The (6-2-1) Steelers at the (3-6) Browns November 17, 1974
As Joe Greene put it, “Any damn thing can happen in Cleveland,” and so it proved in sixty minutes of football in Municipal Stadium.
For Terry Hanratty, it would be a game that he would want to forget. His passes found more grateful players wearing the home team jerseys than those wearing black and gold.
Midway through the first quarter, Hanratty’s first interception resulted in a Browns’ 44-yard field goal. On the Steelers’ next series, Hanratty found Ron Shanklin twice with passes of 35 and 28 yards, the latter for a touchdown that gave Pittsburgh a 7-3 lead.
In the second quarter, a touchdown run of 54 yards by Franco Harris increased the Steelers advantage before the Browns replied with a 35-yard field goal.
A hit on Browns’ quarterback Brian Sipe by Ernie Holmes saw his pass intercepted by Joe Greene who returned it 26 yards to set up a 32-yard field goal.
The Steelers held a slender 13-6 lead going into the third period before Hanratty fell apart and attempted to hand the game to Cleveland. Van Green stole the ball out of Hanratty’s hands as he attempted a pass and returned it 36 yards for a score.
When Hanratty then fumbled a handoff, Walter Sumner recovered the ball for the Browns, and they edged three points ahead after kicking an18-yard field goal.
At the beginning of the final period, L.C. Greenwood recovered a fumble after Andy Russell’s hit on Sipe saw the ball become loose. The Steelers tied the game 16-16 with Roy Gerela’s 23-yard field goal.
After Hanratty left the game with leg cramps, the Browns reacted charitably by giving the game to the Steelers.
First Sipe collided with his running back and they watched as Greene picked up the loose ball. Spotting J.T. Thomas to his left, Greene lateralled the ball as though he had been a rollout quarterback all his life. Thomas ran it back 14 yards for a touchdown.
After Cleveland muffed the kick return, Loren Toews recovered at the Browns’ 38. Guided by Joe Gilliam, the Steelers moved the ball to the 7 before kicking a 22-yard field goal to seal the victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 26 at the Cleveland Browns 16
Most of the sports’ headlines the next day ran with “Steelers Break Jinx” after Pittsburgh had broken a ten-year streak of losing in Cleveland.
Franco Harris rushed for 156 yards, his eleventh 100-yard career game.
Terry Hanratty’s 2 completions from 15 attempts resolved the quarterback question. Terry Bradshaw returned the following week to lead them to the playoffs and on to win their first Super Bowl against the Vikings.
“Weird is probably a good way to describe the game,” suggested Coach Noll. “But nice weird.” No one was surprised when Noll added, “Joe Greene got the offensive game ball for his broken field running.”