By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — After a quick search, the clear turning point in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ (10-3) boring 14-3 win against the Cleveland Browns (4-9( Thursday night came in the waning minutes during the third quarter and early in the fourth, as everything played off that.
The Steelers, clinging to a 7-3 lead, drove from their 10 to the goal line. They overcame the second of three critical penalties by Chris Kemoeatu, but four tries from the 1 ended there. After a three-and-out by the Browns, the Steelers got the ball at the Cleveland 38. They appeared to convert a third down, but Kemoeatu’s holding killed the drive.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (17/22, 280 Yds, 2TD, 1INT) — nursing a sprained left ankle that forced him out for a while in the second quarter — had to throw on third-and-long and was picked off by Mike Adams. The Browns then drove from their 44 to the red zone, as James Harrison was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy to help the drive along.
McCoy hit Evan Moore for 13 yards to the 5, but two plays later — on a blitz — McCoy was nearly sacked by Troy Polamalu and eventually knocked down by Harrison. However, McCoy was called for intentional grounding. The penalty pushed the ball back to the 16, and McCoy was picked off in the end zone by William Gay on the next play.
On second-and-nine from the 21, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown (5 REC – 151 Yds – 1TD) on an out. He had the first down, but wanted more. Brown spun around cornerback Joe Haden, who fell, as the speedy wideout continued to the end zone for a dazzling 79-yard touchdown reception.
Thanks to two turnovers and injuries to three starters in the second quarter, the Steelers had to hang on for a 7-3 lead against the Browns at halftime. The second quarter didn’t get any better after a sequence where the Steelers turned the ball over twice, and the Browns had one, as there were injuries on both teams. Roethlisberger twisted an ankle on a sack, and defensive end Ziggy Hood suffered a groin strain. Roethlisberger returned, but Hood was replaced at left defensive end by Steve McLendon.
For the Browns, Josh Cribbs also had a groin injury, while tight end Ben Watson had a concussion and is out. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey also missed the last series in the second quarter with another ankle injury and did not return. Cribbs remained out as well with Watson, and that didn’t help McCoy.
The Browns surprised the Steelers with an early third-down conversion, 33-yard pass from McCoy to Moore on a great catch and 25-yarder down the middle to Cribbs to the 5 in their opening possession. But after a three-yard run by Peyton Hillis, McCoy ran to the goal line. Replays showed that he was short, and on a third-down sneak he was stuffed for a one-yard loss by James Farrior and Larry Foote to force a field goal. Phil Dawson’s 20-yard kick was good to give the Browns a 3-0 lead.
That didn’t faze the Steelers, as Roethlisberger led them on a five-play, 73-yard scoring drive in just 3:10. He opened with a 22-yard pass to Mike Wallace and 12-yard wideout screen to Antonio Brown. Wallace ran a reverse for 21 yards to the 11, and Roethlisberger covered that final distance with a pass to Jerricho Cotchery to give the Steelers a 7-3 advantage.
There were three straight turnovers to open the second quarter. The Steelers drove from their 10 to the red zone, as Brown caught passes for 20 and 13 yards, and Wallace had an 11-yard reception. On second down from the 21, Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for six yards to the 15, but he fumbled. The Browns recovered and needed just three plays to give it back.
McCoy’s pass into triple-coverage was picked off by Troy Polamalu, and he returned it 33 yards to the 10. After a false start, Roethliberger connected with tight end Heath Miller for seven yards to the 8, but he fumbled and the Browns recovered once again. Both forced fumbles were excellent strip plays.