By TOM WITHERS
Growing up in Ohio, Ben Roethlisberger knew all about the Steelers-Browns rivalry, once the NFL's nastiest intra-division spat.
It used to be a somewhat fair fight. But he has tilted the series almost single-handedly.
Pittsburgh's quarterback carries a 15-1 career record against the Browns into Sunday's matchup between teams hanging on the fringe of the AFC playoff race.
Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson knows that despite Pittsburgh's record and any rumors swirling around Roethlisberger and his future, that as long as the imposing No. 7 is under center, the Steelers (4-6) are to be taken seriously.
“He's had a great career over there,” Jackson said. “We know we're going to have our hands full.”
Following a 0-4 start, the Steelers (4-6) have turned their season around and can move themselves closer to playoff contention by beating the Browns (4-6), who are still smarting from a disappointing loss last week in Cincinnati. Cleveland scored the game's first 13 points before unraveling in the second quarter, when the Bengals blocked two punts, scored on a fumble recovery, scored 31 straight points and coasted.
Roethlisberger passed for 367 yards and four touchdowns last week in a win over Detroit. The strong performance helped subdue talk fueled by a recent report the 31-year-old will seek a trade in the offseason. Roethlisberger dismissed the notion, saying he wanted “to be a Steeler for life.”
That's not comforting to the Browns or their fans, who have only celebrated five victories over Pittsburgh in 30 games since 1999.
To stop the Steelers, the Browns must slow Roethlisberger – and that’s never easy.
Ray Horton, Cleveland’s defensive coordinator, spent seven seasons on Pittsburgh’s staff and knows firsthand how tough the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Roethlisberger is to handle.
“I don’t think there’s been a quarterback in the league that has taken unabated shots and shrugged guys off, made more big plays, than Ben in the history of the league,” Horton said. “I told our players, he was a shortstop in baseball; you’d think he would be a pitcher.
“He was a point guard in basketball; you’d think he would be the center. And he punts left-footed. So this guy is the most athletic guy that we’ll face, meaning total package of completeness.”
Horton marvels at Roethlisberger’s ability to turn a broken play into a big gain to his receivers.
“He’s a unique guy,” he said. “They’re a unique bunch in that their wide receivers thrive on getting open after contact and going up the field and creating plays that are really school-yard basketball plays: Go behind the Subaru and take a left, and I’ll hit you. They make a ton of big plays that way.”
Jackson said it took him a few years to completely understand how important the Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry is to both cities. He’s expecting the usual brawl.
“You know you have to bring your lunch pail, you have to bring your big-boy pants and it’s going to be a dogfight,” he said.
Here are five other things to watch as Pittsburgh and Cleveland meet for the 121st time:
Boomerang Browns?: Last week’s 41-20 loss to the Bengals was somewhat demoralizing for the Browns, who let their biggest game since 2007 slip away with a series of miscues in the second quarter. Coach Rob Chudzinski is confident his team can bounce back.
“We’re focused,” he said, “and there’s always a little extra highlight when it’s Pittsburgh.”
Postseason hopes: With the season winding down, every game takes on added meaning and this week’s loser will likely fall from the playoff chase.
The Browns, who haven’t made the postseason since 2002, are entering a stretch of three home games in four weeks, while the Steelers will follow their trip to Cleveland with one to Baltimore.
No ordinary Joe: Browns cornerback Joe Haden has spent the season shutting down opponents’ No. 1 wide receivers. This week, his assignment is Antonio Brown, who leads Pittsburgh with 74 catches for 952 yards.
Haden limited Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green to two catches for 7 yards last week and has not given up a touchdown to six former Pro Bowlers this season.
Let it snow: The weather forecast is calling for temperatures in the mid-20s and a chance of snow. Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, who grew up in Texas, said catching a frozen football is no easy task.
“It’s definitely hard,” he said. “You have nothing protecting your hands and they kind of go numb. Your toes go numb. I’ve been trying to get used to it, practicing out here without an undershirt on and it still won’t compare to it.”
Friendly rivals: For Horton, the matchup with Pittsburgh creates a meeting with his mentor, Dick LeBeau, the Steelers’ long-time defensive mastermind.
Horton spent seven seasons working under LeBeau, who coached him in Cincinnati and is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player.
“I carry some of the life lessons I’ve learned from him into my life and instilled into my children and my coaching career,” Horton said. “Probably everything that I am, he’s a big reason why.”