PITTSBURGH -- For nearly a week, football fans in Cleveland and Pittsburgh had become buddies, courtesy of one Mr. Art Modell.
After Modell announced that his Cleveland Browns were moving to Baltimore eight days ago, Cleveland fans asked their Pittsburgh neighbors to wear orange armbands at last night's game in a show of support. And then both groups were supposed to turn their backs to the field for a minute at the beginning of the game. And Steelers fans wore Browns T-shirts.
But that was enough as far as the Steelers were concerned.
The Steelers practically knocked their old nemesis out of the AFC Central race with a 20-3 victory over the Browns last night before a crowd of 58,675 at Three Rivers Stadium.
Quarterback Neil O'Donnell and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen sealed the win for Pittsburgh (6-4) with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 4:06 left in the game that put the Steelers ahead 20-3.
Cleveland (4-6) has lost five of its last six games and two straight since Modell's annoucement.
The Steelers started taking control of the game in the third quarter when their offense clicked immediately as O'Donnell led a drive from their own 40 to the 31 of Cleveland. The drive stalled, though, and Norm Johnson's 48-yard field-goal attempt with 11:39 left in the period went wide right.
But nine seconds later, Steelers defensive end Ray Seals deflected an Eric Zeier pass and linebacker Greg Lloyd made the interception and returned it to the Cleveland 43.
Six plays later Pittsburgh had moved down to the 20 setting up Johnson for another field goal. This time Johnson converted a 38-yard attempt, hitting the right upright, but putting the Steelers ahead 10-3, with 8:32 left in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh was on the move again later in the period. The Browns' Tom Tupa had a punt of 59 yards, but he also out kicked his coverage. Andre Hastings took the kick, darted through the middle, and then moved to the right for a 56-yard return down to the Pittsburgh 31.
The Steelers' offense was inept again, but at this point who cared? Out jogged Johnson, who converted on a 34-yard field goal this time to put Pittsburgh ahead 13-3, with 2:50 remaining in the third quarter.
Erric Pegram ran for 112 yards on 26 carries, 76 of them in the second half as the Steelers sat on leads of 7-3, 10-3, 13-3 and 20-3. It was their first 100-yard rushing game since the now-retired Barry Foster's 133 yards in the Steelers' 29-9 playoff victory over Cleveland last season.
The first quarter was filled with errors and dull football. National Football League officials like to call it parity.
Between the two teams, they managed only 90 yards of total offense in the quarter. Cleveland had 40 yards, the Steelers had 50. The Steelers had 30 yards passing, the Browns a paltry 2.
It gets worse.
Combined, the two teams had seven penalties for 65 yards. Pittsburgh advanced inside Cleveland territory only once, and that drive stalled at the Browns' 39.
Cleveland was just as ineffective. The Browns got as far as the Steelers' 37 on their first possession of the game, but Browns right tackle Orlando Brown was penalized 10 yards for holding on second-and-one. Browns quarterback Eric Zeier was sacked on second down, and he threw incomplete to running back Earnest Byner on third down.
The Browns also had another big play nullified late in the quarter when running back Leroy Hoard ran from the Cleveland 42 down to the Steelers' 13, but offensive tackle Tony Jones was called for holding.
Pittsburgh finally put together an impressive 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive midway in the second quarter to take a 7-0 lead.
Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell, the former University of Maryland star, was superb in the drive. On the first play, he completed a 24-yard pass across the middle to Charles Johnson to the Steelers' 49. Two plays later, on third down, O'Donnell threw across the middle again, this time on a 20-yard hookup to Ernie Mills down to the Cleveland 25.
Then on a third-and-11 at the Browns' 26, O'Donnell waited patiently despite a blitz and passed to flanker Kordell Stewart over the middle again for an 11-yard gain and a first down.
Stewart, though, played the key part in Pittsburgh's touchdown. Stewart, the rookie who played quarterback at Colorado, lined up in the shotgun formation behind center and took the snap while rolling to his right. With no receiver open, Stewart reversed field, and then passed to Mills in the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown. It was his first NFL pass attempt.
Mills, though, may have been an ineligible receiver because he stepped out of bounds in the right corner of the end zone when Stewart initially rolled in that direction.
Cleveland pulled within 7-3 on a 29-yard field goal from Matt Stover as time expired in the first half.
Zeier had pass completions of 17, 10, 8 and 6 yards during the 10-play, 53-yard drive.
NOTES: Browns owner Art Modell spent last night in Baltimore watching the game with his son and team vice president David Modell. . . . Some Steelers fans wore orange armbands in support of the Browns last night. One Steelers player was surprised. "People are going to wear armbands?" said defensive tackle Justin Strzelczyk. "Not Steelers fans. Get out of here. I don't believe it." . . . Former Pittsburgh running back Barry Foster visited the Steelers' training camp Sunday and attended last night's game. . . . Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene's wife, Tara, sang the national anthem.