Steelers let 14-point advantage slip away, settle for tie with Browns
CLEVELAND — What was shaping up as a satisfying finish for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their season opener Sunday afternoon ended with a score that left nobody happy in the visiting locker room at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Steelers, behind running back James Conner in his first game replacing Le’Veon Bell, built a 14-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. A victory against a Cleveland Browns team that was winless last season appeared to be imminent.
But a fumble by Conner midway through the fourth quarter helped the Browns claw back with two touchdowns in the final 7 minutes, 32 seconds. When both teams missed field-goal attempts in overtime, the result was a 21-21 tie in rainy conditions that left the Steelers disheartened on their soggy two-hour bus ride back to Pittsburgh.
Defensive captain Cam Heyward didn’t hold back after the Steelers played their first tie since 2002 against Atlanta.
“Hell yeah, it feels like a loss,” Heyward said. “Sorry for using that language, but if we settle for those, we’re going to be an awfully (ticked) off bunch.
“We didn’t get the job done.”
The Steelers held a 21-7 lead and had the ball with 7:44 left in the fourth quarter. Conner had scored his first two NFL touchdowns and nearly matched his entire rushing total from the 2017 season, but he was stripped of the ball on the first play of the drive, and the ball was returned 16 yards to the Steelers 1.
Carlos Hyde scored on the next play, and the Browns tied it with 1:58 left on Tyrod Taylor’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon.
Chris Boswell, who had four game-winning field goals last season, was wide left on a 42-yard attempt with 1:44 left. Zane Gonzalez missed a chance to win it for the Browns when his 43-yard kick with 9 seconds left was blocked by T.J. Watt.
And so it was that the Steelers and Browns played the first opening-weekend tie in the NFL since the 1971 season.
“It was an awkward feeling after a game like that,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “You don’t know what to feel or to say or think.”
Two of Tomlin’s captains didn’t share that sentiment.
“If you don’t win, it feels like a loss,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
“It gives you a sick taste in your mouth,” Heyward added.
It was enough for Bell to break his silence on social media. In a tweet, Bell wrote, “No shade, just never witnessed a tie before.”
While Bell remained away from the team and forfeited an $855,000 weekly paycheck, Conner proved to be a more-than-capable replacement. He rushed for 135 yards on 31 carries and scored on runs of 4 and 22 yards. He also caught five passes for 57 yards for 192 yards from scrimmage. Conner had 144 yards rushing in 14 games last season.
By comparison, Bell had 32 rushing yards and 47 scrimmage yards in the 2017 opener in Cleveland. Conner exceeded those numbers by halftime.
“Wasn’t enough to win,” Conner said. “We had some good runs and stuff like that, but it wasn’t enough to win.”
Playing in rain that intensified throughout the game, the Steelers committed six turnovers and 12 penalties. Roethlisberger threw three interceptions in the first half and fumbled twice: once in the fourth quarter and once in overtime.
The Browns, though, scored only one touchdown — off Conner’s fumble — after all of those miscues.
“The big picture element of it obviously is the turnover margin, but we just didn’t make enough plays,” Tomlin said. “We had our opportunities. Even with the turnovers, we had our opportunities.”
The Browns, trailing 21-14 after Hyde’s score, couldn’t take advantage of Roethlisberger’s first fumble. But they got the ball back with 2:10 to play and moved 55 yards on two passes. Cornerback Cameron Sutton, subbing for Joe Haden, who left with a hamstring injury, was beaten on both plays, including the 17-yard strike to Gordon.
The Browns got one more chance in regulation, but Sutton intercepted Taylor on a heave toward the goal line.
On their second possession of overtime, the Steelers drove from their 45 to the Browns 24. Boswell was sent out to win it with a 42-yard field-goal attempt. He knocked it wide left.
“I had all the confidence in the world,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s our guy. The next time he goes out there, I’m going to have the same confidence in him.”
After forcing a three-and-out, the Steelers got the ball back at their 26 with 1:17 left in the reduced 10-minute session. With the ball at the 38, Roethlisberger was sacked for the fourth time, and the ball popped into the hands of linebacker Joe Schobert, whose return set up the Browns at the Steelers 24.
On third down and with 13 seconds remaining, Gonzalez was sent out to win it for the Browns on a 43-yard attempt. Watt, who had four of the Steelers’ seven sacks, batted down the kick.
Several special teams players high-stepped and celebrated as they ran off the field, but the mood changed considerably by the time the Steelers retreated to the locker room.
“It doesn’t feel good anytime you don’t get the job done,” Antonio Brown said. “Our business is winning, and we didn’t get it done today.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.