October 22, 2014

1961: Mitchell & Plum Spur Browns Over Steelers

The Cleveland Browns were 3-2, having lost the previous week against Green Bay, as they took on the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 22, 1961. Head Coach Paul Brown’s team had an outstanding rushing tandem with FB Jim Brown and HB Bobby Mitchell operating behind a solid line, but the pass receivers were less impressive and now QB Milt Plum was out with a dislocated right thumb suffered against the Packers. Len Dawson, still yet to emerge in his fifth year after having been drafted by the Steelers in the first round out of Purdue in 1957, was starting in his place.

Pittsburgh, under Head Coach Buddy Parker, was 1-4 and had showed a tendency for losing close contests. QB Bobby Layne was out with a shoulder injury and Rudy Bukich, a 29-year-old career backup, was filling in. Split end Buddy Dial was a fine deep threat FB John Henry Johnson led the ground game, but age, combined with a big turnover in personnel, was a problem for the Steelers on both sides of the ball.

There were 29,266 fans in attendance at Forbes Field. The Steelers had first possession and punted, but got the ball back when CB Johnny Sample intercepted Len Dawson’s third pass. Rudy Bukich threw to Buddy Dial for 19 yards but, after advancing to the Cleveland 36, the home team came up empty when Lou Michaels was short and low on a 44-yard field goal attempt.

On Cleveland’s next series, Bobby Mitchell ran to his right and down the sideline for a 48-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 16. Two carries by HB Tom Watkins picked up six yards, but Dawson was then sacked by DT Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and Lou Groza kicked a 24-yard field goal to make it 3-0.

The Steelers punted following a short series and, in a drive that extended into the second quarter, the Browns advanced deep into Pittsburgh territory. Jim Brown ran four consecutive times for 22 yards to start things off and Mitchell converted a fourth-and-one play with a two-yard carry. However, after Brown took a pitchout and ran 20 yards to the Pittsburgh one yard line, the great fullback fumbled while attempting to hurdle the line and safety Jackie Simpson caught the ball in the air in the end zone and returned it to the nine.

The Steelers again had to punt and the Browns, taking possession at their 49, went 51 yards in seven plays, this time not coming up empty. Brown and Mitchell ran effectively and Dawson completed a pass to Mitchell for nine yards. Mitchell gained the last six yards for a touchdown and, with Groza’s extra point, the visitors were in front by 10-0. That remained the score at halftime as the teams traded punts for the remainder of the half.

The frustrated home fans booed the Steelers as they returned to the field for the second half. The Browns edged into Pittsburgh territory on the first series of the third quarter, but a Dawson pass was picked off by CB Bill Butler and he returned it to the Cleveland 42. Now the Steelers moved effectively with John Henry Johnson and HB Tom Tracy running well. Bukich threw to Dial for a 12-yard touchdown and, adding Michaels’ PAT, which hit the crossbar but made it over, the Cleveland lead was cut to 10-7.

A short possession by the Browns was followed by a punt and, after no gain on a first down running play, Bukich connected with Dial on three straight passes for 17, 33, and 10 yards to reach the Cleveland 13. HB Dick Hoak ran twice for eight yards and, on third-and-two, Dial came through with a leaping catch that picked up three yards. On the next play, Tracy ran for a two-yard TD between the goal posts and, with Michaels successfully converting, the Steelers were ahead by 14-10.

Milt Plum was at quarterback for the next Cleveland series, and he threw to ends Leon Clarke for 23 yards and Rich Kreitling for 10 to get to the Pittsburgh 35. The drive stalled at the 29 and Groza kicked a 36-yard field goal to make it a one-point contest.

On the last play of the period, safety Bobby Franklin intercepted a Bukich pass and the Browns, taking over at the Pittsburgh 25, drove to a score in five plays. Plum had a pass to Mitchell for 11 yards along the way and it was Mitchell running the last nine yards for a touchdown. Groza added the extra point and Cleveland was back in the lead by 20-14.

The Steelers had to punt on their next series, but got the ball back at the Cleveland 24 when Mitchell fumbled a pitchout and DT Joe Krupa recovered. Tracy was stopped for a four-yard loss on the next play, but Bukich connected with Dial for 24 yards and Tracy gained the last yard for a TD. Michaels converted to put the home team back on top by 21-20.

The Browns came back with a six-play, 72-yard drive. Plum completed a pass to TE Gern Nagler for 18 yards and another to Mitchell, also for 18, and after Mitchell ran for 14 yards, he sped around end for an 18-yard touchdown. Groza kicked the point after and the see-saw battle had Cleveland back in front by 27-21.

On Pittsburgh’s first play from scrimmage following the kickoff, Bukich tossed a screen pass to Johnson who fumbled after running into his own man and DE Paul Wiggin recovered for the Browns at the 10. The Steelers were able to keep the visitors out of the end zone, but Groza kicked a 12-yard field goal to make the score 30-21 with less than three minutes remaining to play.

Pittsburgh, starting at its own six after the kickoff, responded with a big play two snaps later as Bukich connected with Dial for an 88-yard touchdown. Michaels kicked the PAT to make it a two-point game, but by the time the Steelers got the ball back again, the clock was down to 45 seconds and the game ended for them on their 32 yard line. Cleveland came away with a 30-28 win.

The Browns had the edge in total yards (378 to 309) and first downs (21 to 17), with 229 of their total coming on the ground. They also turned the ball over four times, to three suffered by Pittsburgh, but recorded six sacks, to one by the Steelers.

Both Bobby Mitchell and Jim Brown went over a hundred yards rushing, with Mitchell compiling 119 yards on 14 carries that included three touchdowns and Brown gaining 114 yards on 29 attempts. Mitchell also caught four passes for 47 more yards to lead the Browns. Len Dawson completed 6 of 12 passes for 68 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions before being relieved by Milt Plum, who was 6-of-8 for 88 yards and, while also throwing for no TDs, gave up no interceptions. Lou Groza was successful on all three of his field goal attempts.

For the Steelers, Buddy Dial (pictured at right) had a huge performance in defeat with 9 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns. Rudy Bukich was successful on 15 of 24 throws for 275 yards and two TDs with one interception. John Henry Johnson rushed for 35 yards on 8 carries and Tom Tracy was right behind with 34 yards on 12 attempts that included two for touchdowns.

The Browns won again the next week as they sought to keep up with the Giants and Eagles in the Eastern Conference, but they ultimately finished at 8-5-1 to settle for third place. Pittsburgh came back with a three-game winning streak, including one over the Browns in the rematch in Cleveland, and finished strong for a 6-8 record that ranked fifth in the conference.

Bobby Mitchell was called up to active military duty but was still able to get passes to play on the weekends and rushed for 548 yards on 101 carries (5.4 avg.) and had 32 pass receptions for another 368 yards (11.5 avg.), scoring a total of 10 touchdowns. Jim Brown, as he had in each of the previous four seasons since entering the NFL, led the league in rushing with 1408 yards on a then-record 305 carries (4.6 avg.) and received his annual first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl honors. Milt Plum topped the NFL in passing efficiency for the second straight year, completing 58.6 percent of his throws for 18 TDs against 10 interceptions.

As had been the case throughout his career to date, Len Dawson saw scant action over the course of the season, throwing 15 passes -  his highest total thus far. He moved over to the Dallas Texans of the AFL in 1962 and his fortunes changed dramatically for the better.

In his third year, Buddy Dial gained selection to the Pro Bowl after catching 53 passes for 1047 yards (19.8 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. His 235-yard pass receiving performance against the Browns remained the franchise record until 2002. Rudy Bukich ultimately moved back to the bench with the return of Bobby Layne, but won four of his seven starts and had a solid completion percentage of 57.1 on his 156 passes. 11 were good for TDs, but he also gave up 16 interceptions.