CLEVELAND – The Steelers made plenty of mistakes by the lake.
Despite being penalized for 144 yards and generally slogging through their opener like it was a fifth preseason game, the Steelers won their opener Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, beating the Cleveland Browns, 21-18.
In the end, it was the Steelers’ pass rush, which sacked Cleveland rookie quarterback Deshone Kizer seven times, and Antonio Brown, who caught 11 passes for 182 yards – including a circus catch in the fourth quarter – that made the difference.
“We’re excited about getting the job done,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “Obviously, we’ve got some work to do, but it’s great to do that work with a win in your back pocket.”
Outside of Brown, Pittsburgh’s offense was stagnant for much of the day as Cleveland bottled up running back Le’Veon Bell, limiting him to 32 yards on 10 carries and three receptions for 15 yards.
Bell sat out the entire preseason before reporting Sept. 1 and signing his one-year franchise tender offer of $12.12 million.
“We were out of sync because we were behind the chains,” Tomlin said. “When you get highly penalized and you are working at first-and-15 or second-and-15, you’re not going to have a great running game. You can write whatever story you want to write about – his missing the preseason and all of that – the bottom line is that we got highly penalized and it put us behind the chains and minimized the running game.”
Fortunately for the Steelers, their special teams got the season off to a smashing start.
After the defense forced the Browns into a three-and-out on their first possession, linebacker Tyler Matakevich came through Cleveland’s line untouched and blocked a Britton Colquitt punt at the 5-yard line. The ball bounded into the end zone, where Anthony Chickillo fell on it to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead before their offense ever took the field.
“Obviously, it wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it. We found a way,” Bell said. “Special teams, early in the game, was huge. The first touchdown of the season – I don’t even think we had a special-teams touchdown last year. Having a special-teams touchdown early in the game was big. Usually, when you block a punt and score, you’re winning the game.”
Not that the Steelers didn’t make it interesting.
Kizer, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 222 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and the penalties kept Cleveland in the game.
A pass interference penalty at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line by safety Sean Davis set up Cleveland’s first score, a 1-yard TD run by Kizer in the first quarter.
Seemingly every time the Steelers would make a big offensive or defensive play, a penalty flag would fly.
“Obviously, 140, 150 yards is way too highly penalized,” said Steelers safety Mike Mitchell. “It’s going to be tough for us to beat truly elite teams playing that way.”
While Kizer kept the Browns in it, Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick, linebacker T.J. Watt, made the fellow rookie’s life miserable.
Watt, the first outside linebacker to start an opener for the Steelers since Aaron Jones in 1988, had six tackles, two sacks and an interception in his debut.
“I knew when the team drafted him, he was going to be a big part of the team’s success and he showed it,” said fellow linebacker Ryan Shazier.
While Brown was the offensive star of the game, it was tight end Jesse James who provided the scoring.
James, who finished with 41 yards on six catches, caught a 4-yard TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger at the end of the first half and a 2-yard score near the end of third quarter for Pittsburgh’s lone offensive touchdowns.
“He delivered some big-time plays, particularly in the red zone,” Tomlin said. “Performance in the red zone will define us. His contributions in that area, in particular, were exceptional.”
James’ second score, which came on an inside screen, put the Steelers ahead 21-10 with 5:43 remaining in the third quarter.
And when Watt ended Cleveland’s next possession with a leaping interception, it looked like the Steelers had put the game away.
But Roethlisberger, who threw for 263 yards while becoming the all-time wins leader at FirstEnergy Stadium with 11, was intercepted at the goal line on a pass intended for Martavis Bryant, and Cleveland cut the gap to 21-18 when Kizer threw a 3-yard fourth-down TD pass to Corey Coleman with 3:40 remaining and Isaiah Crowell ran in the two-point conversion.
The Steelers were backed up in their own end following a holding penalty on center Maurkice Pouncey and perhaps facing the thought of putting their defense back on the field to hold the lead. But Roethlisberger threw up a prayer of a pass that Brown came down with 38 yards downfield, between three Cleveland defenders, to allow the Steelers to run out the clock.
Brown made the leaping catch, landed on his back and rolled over, losing the football at the end. Cleveland challenged the ruling of a catch but the play was upheld by replay.
“I secured it and then I rolled over,” Brown said. “It was a great throw by Ben to give me a chance to go up and get it.”
“Those guys have been working together for a long time,” Tomlin said. “A lot has been written about that duo and what they’ve been able to do, particularly in recent years. That comfort, that relationship is evident on downs like that.”
The Steelers know they didn’t play their best. They also know they escaped with a win in an AFC North game.
“There’s a lot you can learn. This is a great teach tape when you win,” said defensive end Cameron Heyward. “Everybody goes away mad when you lose. But when you win and you say, ‘Wow, we could have kept ourselves out of some situations,’ we can really learn from this.”
Odds and ends zones
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who signed a six-year, $60-million contract extension Saturday, left the game during the first series with an injured left arm and did not return. He will be evaluated in Pittsburgh Monday. … Brown’s 100-yard game was the 30th of his career, setting a franchise record. He entered the season tied with Hines Ward. … Roethlisberger passed Fran Tarkenton for ninth place on the NFL’s all-time passing yards list. He has 47,077. … The last player to have two sacks and an interception in a game for the Steelers was linebacker LaMarr Woodley in 2010. Watt became the third player in NFL history with two sacks and an interception in his debut. Charles Glaze and Tommy Haynes each did so in 1987.