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“We play and play to win, and we didn’t win today.”
Those were the closing words from Coach Mike Tomlin after the Steelers tied the Cleveland Browns, 21-21, in the season-opener at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“It’s an awkward feeling after a game like that. You don’t know what to feel, or say, or think,” said Tomlin. “I’m appreciative of the efforts of the men. It was some extraordinary effort at times. We have to play better. We have to play better to assure victory. That’s what we talked about in there, that’s what I told the group.
“You turn the ball over the way we did and you don’t get turnovers, particularly in a hostile environment, you don’t have a very good chance to win. We were in the game, but not enough to win today. We take responsibility for that. We tip our cap to the Browns. They played tough, competitive ball. We’ve got to be better. We intend to be. We’ll analyze tomorrow and move forward.”
The offense turned the ball over six times, with just one takeaway, and it proved costly.
James Conner got the start at running back and had 31 carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Conner also had five receptions for 57 yards. Conner fumbled late in the game, the Browns recovered, and a play later turned it into a touchdown that pulled them within a touchdown and sparked a comeback.
“It wasn’t enough to win,” said Conner. I had some good runs, but it wasn’t enough to win. We want to win, but credit to the Browns. Solid defense. We’ll see them again. Winning is what we do, and we didn’t do that. It kind of feels like a loss.”
The game went into overtime, and the Steelers had a chance but in a driving rain Chris Boswell’s 42-yard field goal attempt went wide left. T.J. Watt, who had 11 tackles and four sacks, was able to help salvage the tie when he blocked Zane Gonzalez’s 43-yard field goal attempt with just seconds to play.
The Steelers opened the game with Conner taking it for a three-yard run, and then pulling in a five-yard reception. But on third-and-two Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t connect with Antonio Brown, and the Steelers were forced to punt.
Jordan Berry’s 31-yard punt gave the Browns great field position at the Cleveland 36-yard line. Tyrod Taylor used his scrambling ability for a six-yard gain, but back-to-back penalties pushed the Browns back to their own 38-yard line. Taylor scrambled for a first down on a 15-yard gain, but the defense shut the door and both teams’ opening drives ended with a punt.
Conner continued to be the workhorse for the offense on the next drive with a 12-yard reception, followed by a 10-yard run. On second down Ryan Switzer couldn’t hang on to Roethlisberger’s short pass, and on third down Roethlisberger’s pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went for no gain, forcing another punt.
T.J. Watt, who didn’t play in the preseason, sacked Taylor for a five-yard loss, but was hit with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call. The defense held, and the fourth straight drive of the game ended in a punt.
Ryan Switzer returned Britton Colquitt’s punt 22 yards to midfield, but Ward intercepted Roethlisberger’s pass, which was thrown into coverage, giving the Browns the ball at their own 10-yard line.
Another defensive stop gave the Steelers the ball back and the offense got going. Conner had back-to-back four-yard runs, and Roethlisberger connected with Jesse James for 37 yards. A nimble looking Roethlisberger scrambled 15 yards and went back to James for a 13-yard gain. A short pass to Brown and an incompletion to Conner gave the Steelers third-and-seven at the eight-yard line. Roethlisberger’s pass to Justin Hunter was incomplete, but a roughing the passer on Myles Garrett gave the Steelers new life and they made it count. Conner took it in from the four-yard line for his first NFL touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The defense tried to get the ball right back, but Sean Davis’ interception was negated by a defensive holding call on Terrell Edmunds. Another penalty would end the drive, this time on the Browns. Josh Gordon was called for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness, and the Browns had to punt.
It was a short-lived opportunity for the Steelers. Roethlisberger went deep for Brown on the first play of the drive and was intercepted by Damarious Randall at the Browns 28-yard line.
The defense held off the Browns, giving Roethlisberger one more chance to put points on the board before the half. The Steelers drove into Cleveland territory, but Ward intercepted Roethlisberger for the second time, and the Steelers went into the half up, 7-0.
The Browns came out of the locker room at halftime fired up and moved the ball down the field. Taylor engineered a 10-play, 86-yard drive, that he capped off himself with a 20-yard touchdown run, tying the game at 7-7.
It didn’t take long for the Steelers to get it right back. Switzer’s 28-yard kickoff return gave the offense the ball at the 26-yard line. Roethlisberger hit Smith-Schuster, who took off running for a 67-yard gain to the seven-yard line. After a five-yard run, Conner took it two yards for an apparent touchdown, but it was nullified by a holding call on Maurkice Pouncey. On the next play Justin Hunter pulled in a 12-yard touchdown, but Marcus Gilbert with hit with illegal use of the hands. The third time was a charm when Roethlisberger hit Brown, his go-to guy, for a 22-yard score to put the Steelers back on top, 14-7.
Watt, who showed no signs of missing time in the preseason, thwarted another Browns drive with his third sack of the day. And it would be all Conner on the next drive. Conner took it for 17 yards, and then burst into the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 21-7.
A combination of big plays by a veteran and a rookie in the secondary stopped the Browns next drive. Joe Haden broke-up a potential touchdown pass to Gordon in the end zone, while Edmunds broke up a pass to David Njoke on third down to force a punt.
A healthy diet of Conner, who reached the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career on the drive, got the offense started. Roethlisberger went to Brown, who took off for the 19-yard catch and run. On the ensuing third down Roethlisberger got two yards on the quarterback sneak, something that had been missing from the Steelers offense. But they weren’t able to sustain the drive and were forced to punt.
The Steelers were able to hold off the Browns until late in the fourth. Conner fumbled, and Jabrill Peppers recovered and returned it to the Steelers one-yard line. Carlos Hyde punched it in the end zone for a one-yard score, closing the gap to 21-14.
The Browns weren’t done yet. They got the ball back, and Taylor hit Rashard Higgins for a 38-yard gain to the 17-yard line. One play later Taylor connected with Gordon for a 17-yard touchdown pass, tying the game at 21-21 with 1:58 to play.
The game went into overtime, but both teams missed field goals, Boswell from 42-yards out and Gonzalez’s 43-yard attempt was blocked by Watt.
A look at how they scored:
Second Quarter: Steelers 7, Browns 0
Scoring Play: James Conner four-yard touchdown run.
Scoring Summary: 10-88-5:39
Third Quarter: Steelers 7, Browns 7
Scoring Play: Tyrod Taylor 20-yard touchdown run.
Scoring Summary: 10-86-4:55
Third Quarter: Steelers 14, Browns 7
Scoring Play: Ben Roethlisberger 22-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.
Scoring Summary: 3-74-1:41
Third Quarter: Steelers 21, Browns 7
Scoring Play: James Conner 22-yard touchdown run.
Scoring Summary: 2-29-0:45
Fourth Quarter: Steelers 21, Browns 14
Scoring Play: Carlos Hyde one-yard touchdown run.
Scoring Summary: 1-1-0:04
Fourth Quarter: Steelers 21, Browns 21
Scoring Play: Tyrod Taylor 17-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon.
Scoring Summary: 2-55-0:12