By Teresa Varley
The Steelers were able to accomplish what they set out to do on Sunday, defeating the Cleveland Browns 31-0 at Heinz Field to head into the playoffs on a winning note. The win gives the Steelers a sweep of the AFC North as they finished with a 12-4 record, 6-0 in the division.
But it came with a price tag as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left the game late in the first half with a concussion, taken off the field on a cart after being immobilized. A silenced Heinz Field crowd was encouraged when Roethlisberger signaled to them with thumbs up, just as the cart was leaving the field.
"At this point, all tests are negative, which is positive," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "We are optimistic he is going to be capable of playing. The bye is going to be helpful in regards to that. That is all of the information that I have on his status at this point. Again, it is encouraging."
Prior to the injury Roethlisberger completed nine of 14 pass attempts for 110 yards and an interception. Byron Leftwich came into the game and quickly put points on the board, scrambling for an eight-yard touchdown run. Leftwich finished the game completing seven of 12 passes for 80 yards, before giving way to Dennis Dixon late in the fourth quarter.
Running back Willie Parker got the ground game in gear, scoring the team's first touchdown of the day on a 34-yard carry, the longest run by the Steelers this season.
A swarming Steelers defense continued to cause nightmares for opponents with Tyrone Carter coming up big with two interceptions, returning one of them 32 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"That was the exclamation point that we were looking for to end our regular season," said Tomlin. "The guys did a nice job of staying focused and going out and executing. Hopefully that momentum will prepare us for January football. We will wait to see who we play here in a couple of weeks."
The Steelers were able to move the ball just into Browns territory on their opening drive by combining a short passing game with the run. But they wouldn't go too deep. On first down from the Browns 49-yard line Parker was stopped for no gain. A holding call backed them up to their 41-yard line. On third down Roethlisberger was able to find Mewelde Moore, but he was only able to get back to the 49-yard line and they were forced to punt.
After not being able to get going on the ground, Bruce Gradkowski hit Donte Stallworth for 12 yards and a first down. Gradkowski followed it with a short pass to Braylon Edwards and Joshua Cribbs added a six-yard carry. Jamal Lewis took it up the middle for nine yards and Lawrence Vickers gave them a first down with a two-yard carry. But the defense quickly shut the door when Bryant McFadden sacked Gradkowski on third down and Phil Dawson's 53-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
The offense got in gear again on their next drive when Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for a 24-yard gain. Parker had two short runs and Heath Miller pulled in an eight-yard reception to move the chains. The Browns defense, though, came up big when Sean Jones intercepted Roethlisberger at the six-yard line.
The defense had no interest in letting the Browns take advantage of the turnover and quickly stopped them, forcing a punt.
Penalties played a huge role on the Steelers next drive, starting off with a holding call on the first play against Miller. They were able to rebound, with Miller pulling in a 14-yard reception and Parker going outside for a seven-yard gain. On third down Eric Wright was called for defensive pass interference, giving the Steelers a first down at the Browns 40-yard line.
Roethlisberger went for broke, hitting Nate Washington in stride for the touchdown. But a holding call on Willie Colon nullified the score. The Steelers were forced to punt and it looked like they would get a break and keep the drive going when Shaun Rogers was called for running into Mitch Berger, but the penalties were offsetting with William Gay flagged for illegal motion.
Another defensive stop gave the Steelers the ball at their own 43-yard line and this time there would be no denying them. Roethlisberger hit Miller who fought off defenders for a 20-yard gain. Parker gave the ground game the spark it's been looking for when he broke around right end and went the distance for a 34-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead.
In what became a pattern in the first half the defense was able to stop the Browns and put the ball back in the hands of the offense. On the ensuing drive Roethlisberger was under pressure, completed a short pass to Miller, but was hit on the play, driving him into the ground. Roethlisberger remained down for an extended period of time in front of a silent crowd, eventually being immobilized and taken off the field on a cart.
Leftwich came in for Roethlisberger, completing his first pass for nine yards to Miller. Leftwich connected with Carey Davis for 14 yards to the Browns 15-yard line. Russell battled his way for a seven yard gain for a first down. After a spike and incompletion, Leftwich scrambled away from the pressure and was able to take it for the touchdown and 14-0 lead going into the half.
The defense continued to be dominant in the second half, rattling Gradkowski and eventually forcing him into an errant pass, which Tyrone Carter intercepted at the Browns 30-yard line and returned it 18 yards to the 12-yard line. The Steelers were able to capitalize with a 22-yard Jeff Reed field goal, to extend the lead to 17-0.
And the offense did their part as well. Leftwich led the black and gold on a 12 play, 88-yard drive, taking 7:23 off the clock. Leftwich completed a 13-yard pass to Washington and a 21-yarder to Ward. The drive culminated in a three-yard touchdown run by Russell, to extend the lead to 24-0.
Things continued to roll for the Steelers when Carter came up with his second interception of the day, this time picking off Gradkowski and returning it 32 yards for a touchdown and a 31-0 lead.