Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Five thoughts on Steelers 21, Browns 21
When it comes to the NFL’s Kickoff Weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers had been simply super.
They were 13-2 in season openers since 1960 when a Steelers running back rushed for 100 yards or more. Those numbers meant nothing without All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, a no-show who has refused to report or sign his franchise-tag tender.
That put the magnifying glass on second-year running back James Conner, the former Pitt All-American running back. Conner, who made his first start, had never rushed for more than 23 yards in an NFL regular-season game and had yet to catch a pass or score a touchdown.
That soon changed, but the Steelers still had to settle for a tie.
1. Meet Mr. Garrett: It took a full season, but the long-awaited meeting between Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finally occurred.
The 2017 No. 1 overall pick introduced himself to Big Ben at the start of the second quarter, beating left tackle Alejandro Villanueva for a 4-yard sack.
But Roethlisberger extended the drive by converting a third-and-6 with a 15-yard run for a first down, punctuating the play by delivering a stiff arm to safety Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
On a third-and-7 at the Cleveland 8, Roethlisberger rolled left to escape pocket pressure and threw the ball out of the end zone. Garrett hit Roethlisberger and drove him into the turf to draw a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty.
Before the Browns could say boo, the Steelers scored.
But Garrett was hardly done for the day.
2. Conner hits paydirt: All eyes were on Conner, and he put up better statistics than Bell did at the Browns in the 2017 opener.
Where Bell ran for 32 yards on 10 carries and had three receptions for 15 yards in the 21-18 victory over the Browns last September, Conner ran for 46 yards on eight carries and added three catches for 32 yards.
That was just Conner’s first-half numbers.
One play after Garrett’s personal-foul penalty, Conner completed a 10-play, 88-yard drive with a 4-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead at 11:16 of the second quarter. Conner celebrated by high-stepping into the end zone and turning around to hug the offensive linemen who were critical this past week of Bell for his absence.
Conner would crack the century mark for the first time, rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.
3. Pick your poison: Roethlisberger owns the Browns almost as much as Jimmy Haslam, as his 12-2 record in Cleveland is more victories than any Browns quarterback since 1999.
But Big Ben was off the mark early in throwing three first-half interceptions, including a pair in Cleveland territory.
Both of those were by Browns rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, who was the No. 4 overall pick. Roethlisberger threw into triple coverage on the first, trying to squeeze pass into the arms of Antonio Brown only to see Ward peel off his coverage.
The second also was intended for Brown, who in a miscommunication broke left on a post pattern only to see Roethlisberger’s pass land in the arms of safety Damarious Randall.
The third pick bounced off the hands of tight end Jesse James and into those of Ward at the Cleveland 29, and Ward returned it 26 yards to the Steelers 45.
In the third quarter, Steelers cornerback Artie Burns drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taking off his helmet following a scuffle with Jarvis Landry. The Browns went 86 yards on 10 plays, scoring on Tyrod Taylor’s 20-yard run to tie it, 7-7.
Big Ben would answer.
4. Three strikes: The Steelers started the ensuing drive with a 67-yard pass play to JuJu Smith-Schuster to the Cleveland 7 before a bizarre sequence that saw as many flags as touchdowns.
Penalties nullified back-to-back touchdowns before the Steelers scored on a third consecutive plays.
Center Maurkice Pouncey’s holding penalty negated Conner’s 2-yard run, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert’s illegal hands to face penalty negated a 12-yard pass to Justin Hunter.
But the Steelers responded with a 22-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Brown with Ward in coverage for a 14-7 lead at 8:24 of the third quarter.
5. Shredded: Garrett sparked an unbelievable Browns comeback and making good on his part in the Browns’ parody of The Office, which saw him feeding a photo of Roethlisberger into a shredder.
First, Garrett stripped Conner for a fumble that safety Jabrill Peppers returned to the Steelers 1 to set up Carlos Hyde’s touchdown to cut it to 21-14 with 7:32 left.
Garrett later had a strip-sack of Roethlisberger at the Steelers 37.
The Browns connected on two big pass plays, a 38-yarder to Rashard Higgins followed by a 17-yard touchdown from Taylor to Josh Gordon. Both came with cornerback Cam Sutton in coverage, a replacement for the injured Joe Haden.
Sutton saved the Steelers from a last-minute loss with an interception at the 8 on a pass intended for Gordon, forcing the game to go into overtime.
6. Sudden death: Just when the Steelers looked like they would win in overtime, Chris Boswell’s 42-yard field goal sailed wide left.
That was an ominous sign, given that Boswell had four game-winning field goals last season – three in the final seconds.
The Browns came up with a big play, forcing Big Ben’s fifth turnover when linebacker Genard Avery’s sack that forced a fumble into the hands of Joe Schobert. That gave the Browns the ball at the Steelers 24 with 36 seconds remaining.
After a 1-yard loss and a spike, the Browns turned to Zane Gonzalez for a 43-yard field goal for their first win since 2016 … and, of course, they missed.