PITTSBURGH – For one quarter, the Steelers seemed as disinterested in playing the Cleveland Browns as the Heinz Field record-low crowd of 51,831 was in watching it.
Then Cleveland defensive tackle Phil Taylor decided to take matters into his own hands.
Taylor drilled rookie right tackle Kelvin Beachum from behind away during the end of a running play early in the second quarter, putting Beachum out of the game with a concussion. That seemed to ignite the Steelers.
The Steelers, who had failed to record a first down to that point, woke from their slumber and forced a season-high four turnovers as they beat the Browns, 24-10, in a chippy game at Heinz Field.
The victory allowed the Steelers to finish at 8-8 and avoid their first losing season since 2003. It also kept the Browns (5-11) from sweeping the season series from the Steelers for the first time since 1988.
And the Steelers largely had Taylor to thank for reminding them that the Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry remains despite the one-sided nature of the series in favor of the Steelers in recent history.
“It’s a long-time rivalry and two organizations that have a history of not liking each other,” said Steelers left tackle Max Starks. “Emotions flared high when they took the cheap shot at Kelvin. We took that personally, because the guy was already tackled, and he purposely went after him. We don’t let anyone mess with our family. It got a little heated after that.”
The Browns weren’t particularly happy with the Steelers.
Prior to the hit on Beachum, linebacker Craig Robertson took offense at a late, low block from Steelers guard Doug Legursky, and head coach Pat Shurmur, who is expected to be fired as soon as today; was upset with a late sack by linebacker Lawrence Timmons on second-year quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.
With the Browns driving late in the fourth quarter, Timmons came untouched on a blitz up the middle and hit Lewis, who was making his first career start, squarely in the back, knocking the quarterback out of the game.
“I thought it was a helmet to the quarterback,” said Shurmur, who went onto the field to argue his case. “Of course, I see things differently sometimes. It sure as hell looked like one.”
But a penalty was not called, and Timmons then sacked Josh Johnson, who had replaced Lewis, on the next play, forcing a fumble that the Steelers recovered to allow them to take a knee and run out the clock.
The Steelers needed every turnover they could get to hold off the pesky Browns, who had beaten them, 20-14, earlier in the season in Cleveland in a game in which Pittsburgh turned the ball over eight times.
Cornerback Cortez Allen, who had two interceptions and a forced fumble last week in a loss to Cincinnati that knocked the Steelers out of the postseason, continued his strong end of the season play, forcing two more fumbles against the Browns.
The first, which came with 1:51 remaining in the first half, was at the Cleveland 25 and set up a 1-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to reserve tight end Leonard Pope that gave the Steelers a 10-3 halftime lead.
The second came with 6:40 remaining in the game and the Steelers clinging to a 17-10 lead. Cleveland rookie Travis Benjamin went to the ground to catch a pass at midfield. Allen closed on him, but missed touching him down and Benjamin got up to run. Allen reached back and punched the ball free then scooped it up, returning it 21 yards to the Cleveland 27 to set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Plaxico Burress.
“It was just lucky that I didn’t touch him,” said Allen. “Coach (Carnell) Lake has been driving home to us the last few weeks about how we need to force more turnovers, make more plays on the football. I’ve been blessed the past couple of weeks to be in a position to do that.”
The two easy scores offset a day in which Pittsburgh’s offense struggled without tight end Heath Miller and wide receiver Mike Wallace, who were both out with injuries.
The Steelers managed just 212 yards of total offense. Roethlisberger completed 15 of 23 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns – the other being a third-quarter strike to Antonio Brown.
“I said earlier this week that we wanted to come out and finish the year with a win and have a good feeling going into the offseason,” said Roethlisberger. “That is what we did.”
Odds and end zones
Lewis completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards, one touchdown and one interception before leaving. ... Steelers safety Troy Polamalu recorded the interception, giving him 30 in his career. He is the ninth player in team history to record 30 interceptions. ... Burress’ touchdown catch was his first as a member of the Steelers in a regular season game since Dec. 26, 2004 against Baltimore. ... Chartiers Valley High School graduate Ray Ventrone gained 35 yards on a fake punt in the third quarter. ... In addition to Beachum, defensive end Brett Keisel (MCL sprain), cornerback Keenan Lewis (knee) and guard David DeCastro (stinger) left the game and did not return for the Steelers. ... James Harrison led the Steelers with 11 tackles and a sack. Timmons finished with six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.