CLEVELAND – Until the game’s final play Sunday, the biggest number staring at the Steelers was seven.
No, not injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s jersey number, though the Steelers obviously are concerned about him.
Seven was the number of turnovers the Steelers committed in the game’s first 59-plus minutes.
The Steelers then lost a fumble on the final play, as they attempted some desperation laterals, to finish with eight turnovers in a 20-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
“That was an ugly performance,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in perhaps the understatement of his career.
“We were highly penalized. We turned the ball over. And when you do those things, you are going to lose, I don’t care who is playing quarterback.”
In this case it was 37-year-old veteran Charlie Batch subbing for Roethlisberger, who missed his second game with shoulder and rib injuries.
With Byron Leftwich, last week’s starter in a 13-10 loss to Baltimore, also out with a rib injury, Batch completed 20 of 34 passes for 199 yards and accounted for three of the turnovers with interceptions.
All three of Batch’s interceptions came in the second half after the Steelers practically abandoned their running game following fumbles by Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey.
Only Rainey’s first-half fumble was not recovered by the Browns (3-8), who scored 17 of their 20 points off of Pittsburgh turnovers to beat the Steelers for just the second time in the past 18 meetings. The Steelers dropped to 6-5 and are tied with Cincinnati for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
Each time a running back fumbled, Tomlin replaced him with another player. But when all four fumbled, Tomlin was left without an answer.
“They were fumbling the ball, so we are going to play people who can secure the ball,” Tomlin said. “But after everybody does it, there aren’t very many choices left.”
As a result, the Steelers finished with 49 rushing yards on 20 carries.
“I don’t have an answer for what happened, but I know it shouldn’t happen,” said Mendenhall. “We can’t put the ball on the ground.”
It was Cleveland’s lone turnover in the game that put the Steelers ahead 7-0.
On the Browns’ opening possession, Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel tipped a pass from rookie quarterback Brandon Weedon into the air at the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons grabbed the ball for his team-best third interception and returned it 53 yards to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead.
But the Browns would score 13 unanswered points – 10 with the help of Pittsburgh turnovers. Cleveland converted a Mendenhall fumble at the Steelers’ 46-yard line into a 28-yard Phil Dawson field goal, and a Redman fumble at Pittsburgh 10 into a Weedon touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron.
Cleveland also got a 32-yard Dawson field goal with 3:45 remaining in the first half before the Steelers mounted their only long drive of the game, going 84 yards – including a 25-yard pass interference penalty that was drawn by recently signed receiver Plaxico Burress in the end zone – for a 1-yard Rainey touchdown run with one secondleft in the half.
But the Steelers gave the momentum back when Batch was intercepted on a pass intended for Burress midway through the third quarter at the Pittsburgh 31. Three plays later, rookie running back Trent Richardson, who gained 85 yards on 29 carries, burst up the middle to score from 15 yards.
“To finish a close game like that is big for us,” Richardson said. “That’s the best defense I’ve played against since I’ve been in the NFL, hands down. I took a few shots and that was the hardest-hitting game I’ve played in so far.”
From there, the game became a war of attrition, with the Steelers’ best opportunity coming early in the fourth quarter following strong defensive stand that pinned the Browns at their own 13.
The Steelers had the ball at the Cleveland 44 following a punt, but a Batch’s pass for Mike Wallace over the middle was bobbled into the air and intercepted at the Cleveland 26.
“We turned the football over in position to win the football game,” said Batch. “It’s not solely on one position. With us being in that situation, I put the game on my on my shoulders to try and go down and put the team in the end zone. I wasn’t able to do that.”
Odds and end zones
The Steelers lost linebacker LaMarr Woodley to a sprained ankle in the first quarter. He was replaced by Jason Worilds, who had two sacks. … Offensive tackle Mike Adams went out with an ankle injury in the second half. He was replaced by rookie Kelvin Beachum. … The Steelers allowed just 238 total yards and recorded a season-high four sacks. … The teams combined for 19 penalties, nine by Pittsburgh. … Weeden, who left in the fourth quarter with a head injury, became the first rookie quarterback to beat a Dick LeBeau-led Steelers defense since Baltimore’s Troy Smith in 2007. The Steelers are 14-2 against rookie quarterbacks with LeBeau as defensive coordinator.