PITTSBURGH — Myles Garrett won’t be in the stadium. Barring injury, Mason Rudolph won’t be on the field.
While the absence of the central figures in the helmet-swinging brawl that marred Cleveland’s 21-7 whipping of Pittsburgh on Nov. 14 removes a topic for the rematch on Sunday, both sides believe it will do little to change the tenor of a rivalry that suddenly feels very much alive.
“We love being in hot-button games. We love being in hotly contested AFC North games,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “To be quite honest with you, we're not a group that runs from these type of games. We're the type of group that runs to these type of games. We view it as an honor to be the consistent team in these battles.”
Something that's new for the Browns (5-6), who have ripped off three straight victories to save a season that seemed on the brink of careening out of control.
Garrett and Rudolph's ugly altercation in the final seconds — which included Rudolph attempting to tug off Garrett's helmet and the Cleveland defensive end responding by ripping off the Pittsburgh quarterback's helmet and then slugging Rudolph with it; a sequence that earned Garrett an indefinite suspension and led to Rudolph fending off allegations he used a racial slur — overshadowed a dominant performance by the Browns that hinted at a shift in the balance of power in a series that's been one-sided for decades.
Cleveland didn't just beat the Steelers, the Browns beat them up long before Garrett and Rudolph went at it. Just 16 days later the teams meet again with the stakes — and almost certainly the emotions — even higher.
Pittsburgh (6-5) currently holds the last wild-card spot in the wide-open AFC. The Browns can leapfrog the Steelers by winning at Heinz Field for the first time since 2003. The players insist they'll try to avoid a repeat of the anarchy in Cleveland that drew the kind of unwanted attention the NFL wants desperately to avoid. Just don't expect them to start playing nice.
“I know that it is going to be a lot of trash talking out there and a lot of guys are going to try and get into your head and do things to try and get you out of character,” Browns defensive back Denzel Ward said. “You just have to think about the betterment of the team and just go out there and win the game, but do not do any stupid penalties or anything toward the other team that could hurt this team.”
Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges will make his second career start after the Steelers benched Rudolph for ineffective play last week against Cincinnati. Hodges was effective but hardly overwhelming in a 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 13 while filling in for an injured Rudolph. Still, he's won over teammates with his confidence and won over his coaches by avoiding the kind of killer mistakes that have dogged Rudolph recently.
“I'm not saying we're looking for him to save the world,” guard Ramon Foster said. “But what he's shown us so far is that he can be an important guy on this team if he continues to grow.“
The electrified atmosphere Sunday won't faze Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has faced nasty crowds before. While in college, Mayfield was subjected to the wrath of Texas Tech fans in 2016 when he returned with Oklahoma. Mayfield was with the Red Raiders before leaving the school and walking on for the hated Sooners. He came back to the sight of “Traitor” T-shirts and a storm of screams.
“I would say probably the most violent place I have played in was my return back to Lubbock,” he said. “I don't think Pittsburgh could match that. I really don't. It was about 40,000-50,000 people screaming, (expletive) you, Baker! We will see.”
Browns star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. got back into one of his old stomping grounds last week: the end zone.
Beckham ended an eight-game scoring drought by catching a 35-yard TD pass from Mayfield in the first quarter of Cleveland's win over Miami. It was Beckham's second TD grab and first since Week 2.
The three-time Pro Bowler scored 44 touchdowns in his five seasons with the Giants, and had expected to do more with Cleveland. But it hasn't gone according to plan, which is why he had a muted reaction to making a big play.
“I wasn't super excited about it knowing and feeling the disappointment that I should have been in here a long time ago,” he said. “It was pretty mixed emotions.”
The Steelers will be without center Maurkice Pouncey, serving the second of his two-game suspension he received for kicking and punching Garrett in retaliation for Garrett's fight with Rudolph. Cleveland defensive end Larry Okunjobi will return after sitting out a game for knocking Rudolph to the ground during the melee.
Pittsburgh reserve B.J. Finney played well in Pouncey’s absence while the Browns racked up four sacks without Garrett or Okunjobi last week against Miami.