PITTSBURGH — The faces change, sometimes at a dizzying rate. The results when the Cleveland Browns visit the Pittsburgh Steelers do not.
Each fall the Browns make their way to Heinz Field, typically with a new quarterback and frequently with a new head coach in tow.
And each trip ends in similar fashion: with a quiet bus ride back home after another stinging defeat in a rivalry that hasn’t felt like much of one for more than two decades.
Your turn Baker Mayfield. And maybe your last chance, Hue Jackson.
Cleveland’s rookie quarterback will get his initial shot at the Steelers (3-2-1) on Sunday when the Browns (2-4-1) try win in Pittsburgh for the first time in 15 years.
It’s a drought that spans nearly a dozen quarterbacks — from Jeff Garcia to Colt McCoy to DeShone Kizer — and seven head coaches — from Butch Davis to Pat Shurmur to Jackson, who has yet to win a game on the road during his tenure (0-19) and whose status is shaky at best.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Mayfield brings a certain swagger that’s hard to quantify but also hard to miss.
Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis couldn’t help but notice it on film, particularly the way Mayfield bounced up last week in Tampa Bay after getting hit by Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead , a play that the NFL admitted should have drawn a flag but did not.
“He got trucked but he got up and ran into the defender’s face,” Davis said with a laugh. “I kind of like that. When I hit him, he’s not going to run in my face.”
Davis then laughed before stressing “I do like him. He’s a good ballplayer. He’s put some good stuff on tape.”
So, though, have the first-place Steelers. Pittsburgh has won two straight following a bumpy 1-2-1 start, a stretch that began with a strange 21-all tie in Cleveland in Week 1.
The Steelers turned it over six times in the rain and wind, including a fourth-quarter fumble by running back James Conner that sparked a late Browns’ rally and spoiled an otherwise spectacular day by Conner in his first NFL start.
Seven weeks later, Conner is still atop the depth chart and thriving in the absence of Le’Veon Bell, who still hasn’t signed his one-year franchise tender. The way Conner is playing — he already has three games of at least 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns — there’s no telling what Bell’s role will be whenever he bothers to show up.
In many ways, the Steelers have already moved on from Bell. A victory coming off the bye week against an opponent that’s offered little resistance through the years would provide a momentum boost as Halloween nears. Yet Cleveland believes this isn’t the Same Old Browns. Only one way to find out.
Some things to look for as Pittsburgh looks for some separation in the jumbled AFC North while the Browns try to end a 24-game road losing streak, the second-longest in NFL history.
BEN BEING BEN
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger is an Ohio native and was passed over by the Browns during the 2004 draft. Cleveland opted for tight end Kellen Winslow with the sixth overall pick while the Steelers scooped up Roethlisberger five selections later.
All the 36-year-old Roethlisberger has done is go 21-2-1 in 24 starts against the Browns, and that doesn’t include the 2016 victory in which he came off the bench in relief of Landry Jones.
Still, he’s eager to atone for his four-interception performance in the opener.
“I hate when we turn the football over,” said Roethlisberger, who is tied for the NFL lead in yards passing per game (339). “I hate when we lose football games, but if you look at positives I think we are getting better every week.”
ON THE OFFENSIVE
An emotional Jackson raised eyebrows following last week’s tough loss with comments that he intended to get more involved in Cleveland’s offence, starting this week.
Jackson’s disappointment with the team’s slow starts — the Browns haven’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter — and overall struggles seemed directed at co-ordinator Todd Haley. Jackson walked back his remarks the next day, saying he was not being critical and only wanted to offer Haley help.
“I have total confidence in Todd and what the staff is doing,” he said. “In those situations, fuming like I was after losing, I had a chance to sit back and see it all. I just wanted to make sure that as an offence we were crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, and making sure that everything is moving in the right direction.”
Haley spent six seasons directing Pittsburgh’s high-potent offence before parting with the Steelers following last season’s ugly home playoff loss to Jacksonville. He didn’t always see eye to eye with Roethlisberger, but there were other reasons for the move. Not surprisingly, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin steered clear of any controversy this week about Haley’s departure.
“We just decided that it was an opportunity for change,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes, change is good — not only for us but for him. We had a good experience and had a lot of success together. It is my understanding that he is having a good experience over there, as well.”