Steelers backups keep Browns 0-for-2017
PITTSBURGH — If the Pittsburgh Steelers thought a few early touchdowns against the winless Cleveland Browns would cause the visitors at frigid Heinz Field to pack it in, they were mistaken.
The Browns rallied, took the Steelers to the wire, but couldn’t come all the way back for their first win.
The Steelers held on to beat the Browns 28-24 to make the Browns the second 0-16 team in NFL history. The 2008 Detroit Lions also went 0-16.
“This is going to stay next to my name, this organization’s name, this team’s name for the rest of our lives,” said Browns head coach Hue Jackson. “Nobody wants that. I can’t do anything about it. We tried. We didn’t do it. We didn’t finish. We’ll wear it until we can take it off, but we’ll take it off soon. I promise you that.”
The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but the Browns came back to tie the score at 21 early in the third quarter. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 96-yard kickoff return on the ensuing kickoff put the Steelers back up 28-21 and the Browns could only add a 51-yard field goal and fell short once again.
The Browns had their chances in the fourth quarter, but a fumble by Duke Johnson Jr. at the Pittsburgh 31, a DeShone Kizer interception by Sean Davis at the Cleveland 47, and a dropped fourth-and-2 pass by Corey Coleman at the Pittsburgh 11 kept the Browns from winning their first game.
Coleman had to feel like Dennis Northcutt, who dropped a critical pass for the Browns during their last playoff game, which followed the 2002 season here at Heinz Field. Jackson said, “I’ll put my arms around him and say, ‘You have to make those plays,’ and he knows that. It’s tough. That play will be remembered.”
The Steelers didn’t sense any quit in the beleaguered Browns, who outgained the Steelers 374-348 and converted 6-of-9 third downs in the second half.
“I didn’t feel any of that from them,” said former Browns and current Steelers cornerback Joe Haden. “They just kept pushing, kept fighting all the way to the end.”
The Steelers started Landry Jones at quarterback in place of Ben Roethlisberger and Jones completed 23-of-27 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown in guiding the Steelers to their 13th win of the season. His passer rating of 100.5 was second in his five-year career to the 103.1 rating he posted in last year’s finale against the Browns.
“They’re still paying us. Everyone’s still professional,” Jones said of the group of Steelers backups who replaced five healthy starters. “I think it’s funny sometimes. I got asked a question the other day, ‘Are they going to allow you to throw the ball?’ Uh, yeah. They’re paying me good money to go out there and do a job. I’m not surprised about the outcome today. We’ve still got good players on this team that can get it done.”
Jones drove the Steelers 72 yards on the opening drive for a touchdown. Stevan Ridley, playing for running back Le’Veon Bell, ripped off runs of 13 and 16 yards to set up wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey’s 29-yard touchdown run on a reverse for the early 7-0 lead.
The Steelers increased their lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter with a 20-yard Jones touchdown pass to Smith-Schuster.
The score was set up by a partially blocked punt by Tyler Matakevich, whose blocked punt in the opener in Cleveland gave the Steelers their first touchdown of the season.
The Steelers took the 27-yard punt at the Cleveland 28 and Jones hit a wide-open Smith-Schuster for the touchdown on a third-and-2 play with 13:26 left in the second quarter.
Refusing to pack it in for the winter, the Browns cut the lead in half on their next possession, with the help of their longest completed pass of the season, a 54-yarder from Kizer to Josh Gordon. It set up Johnson’s two-yard touchdown run, after which he prayed for and paid tribute to injured Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Johnson’s touchdown cut the Steelers’ lead to 14-7 with 11:46 left in the half.
The Steelers answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by Ridley’s four-yard touchdown run to push the Steelers’ lead to 21-7 with 7:59 left in the half. A roughing-the-passer penalty by defensive end Myles Garrett on a third-and-2 incompletion cost the Browns when Ridley scored on the next play.
The Browns topped their long pass of the season two snaps later when Kizer found Rashard Higgins for 56 yards. The wide receiver was isolated on outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who fell and Higgins outran the Steelers’ safeties for the touchdown that cut the deficit to 21-14 with 7:22 left in the second quarter.
The Browns tied the game on their opening possession of the second half. A 34-yard pass to tight end David Njoku set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to Higgins, his second touchdown of the game. It tied the score at 21 with 10:54 left in the third quarter.
But Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, the Steelers’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since Antonio Brown in 2010. It gave the Steelers a 28-21 lead with 10:42 left in the third quarter.
A 51-yard field goal by Zane Gonzalez of the Browns cut the lead to 28-24 with 2:04 left in the third quarter.
“We fought for it,” Gordon said. “We really fought for it. Everybody showed up playing with heart, showing resiliency, showed determination to go try and get a win to finish this season on a good note. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the W, but you could see how close we were.”
NOTES: Healthy Steelers scratches included starting QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro and DT Cameron Heyward. Out injured was WR Antonio Brown. ... Steelers K Chris Boswell broke the team single-season scoring record — previously held by Norm Johnson with 141 in 1995 — with four points to give him 142 this season. ... The Steelers broke their team sack record of 55 (1994, 2001) with six sacks to give them 56 this season. Tyson Alualu’s second sack was the record-breaker early in the fourth quarter. ... Browns QB DeShone Kizer entered the game with the worst passer rating (57.9) of a starting quarterback since JaMarcus Russell’s 50.0 in 2009. ... Browns S Jabrill Peppers made his first career interception in the first quarter and had his first career sack in the second quarter. ... Steelers C B.J. Finney left the game in the second quarter with an injured right thigh. He was replaced by Chris Hubbard, a tackle who struggled at times with shotgun snaps. ... WR JuJu Smith-Schuster caught nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. He broke Jimmy Orr’s team rookie receiving yards record with 917. Orr had 910 in 1958.