PITTSBURGH — Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers provided a lesson in how to finish Sunday in a 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Roethlisberger hit Markus Wheaton twice during a last-gasp drive to set up Shaun Suisham’s 41-yard, game-winning field goal.
“Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it?” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin joked.
That’s one way of putting it. Another might be harrowing, after Pittsburgh let a 24-point lead evaporate.
Still, in the end it was Roethlisberger doing what he always seems to do when he faces the Browns. Roethlisberger improved to 18-1 against Cleveland after one last audible set up Wheaton for a 20-yard gain.
“When (Suisham) lines up to kick it, I was on the sideline like, ‘This was why we have him,’” Roethlisberger said. “There was never a doubt he was going to make it.”
There never is when the Browns (0-1) play in Pittsburgh (1-0). Cleveland hasn’t beaten the Steelers on the road in 11 years, though for the first time in a long time the gap in the decidedly one-sided rivalry appears to be narrowing.
Roethlisberger passed for 365 yards and a touchdown, running back Le’Veon Bell had 197 total yards and a score, and Antonio Brown caught five passes for 116 yards with a touchdown. Brown added a highly entertaining (if illegal) kick to the face of Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning — and still the Steelers needed every last second to hold off the Browns.
“We can’t apologize for the way we win,” Roethlisberger said. “We just have to win games.”
Cleveland’s second-half rally came without receiver Josh Gordon (suspension), running back Ben Tate, who left in the second quarter with a knee injury, and tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder).
It also came without Browns backup quarterback Johnny Manziel. He spent his NFL debut in a baseball cap watching starter Brian Hoyer nearly engineer one of the unlikeliest upsets since the franchise’s reincarnation in 1999.
The northern Ohio native who was nearly out of football when the Steelers gave him a short stint as a backup in 2012 completed 19 of 31 passes for 230 yards and a 9-yard touchdown to Travis Benjamin. That tied the game at 27 with 11:15 to go.
“I told those guys at the end of the game that I’ll take that team to the end of the Earth if we’re going to fight back like that,” Hoyer said.
Scrapping is nothing new to Hoyer, who held off Manziel during an uninspired training camp battle. Coach Mike Pettine promised the well-traveled Hoyer he wouldn’t have to spend games looking over his shoulder. Pettine flatly answered “no” when asked if he considered going to Manziel after the Browns fell behind 27-3 at the half.
“The way the game went, we just never felt the need for him,” Pettine said.
The Browns ditched their methodical attack for an up-tempo, no-huddle that kept Pittsburgh off-balance. When Tate went to the sideline, rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell provided a jolt.
West darted for 100 yards, and Crowell scored a pair of second-half touchdowns as the Browns somehow pulled even.
It just wasn’t enough. After sometimes frantic play for the first 50 minutes, both teams squandered chances to take control. Cleveland’s last gasp came with a first down its 20 with 1:53 to go. A sack, an incompletion and an ill-advised screen gave the Steelers the ball back at their 43.
Roethlisberger found Wheaton for an 11-yard gain on second down and connected with Wheaton again at the Cleveland 24. Suisham, who signed a contract extension during training camp, smacked the winner down the middle.
Earlier, surrounded by play-makers and emboldened by an expanded no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger passed for 278 yards, including a beautiful 35-yard rainbow touchdown to Brown, in the first 30 minutes as the Steelers raced to the 27-3 halftime lead.
The highlight came on a rollicking punt return by Brown in the second quarter. He tried to leap over Lanning, only to have his cleat smash into Lanning’s face. The play drew an unnecessary roughness penalty on Brown — perhaps the first ever by a punt returner — and comic laughter from the sun-splashed crowd delighting in what appeared to be another mauling in a series full of them.
“I tried to get over him,” Brown said. “There was no intent to hurt him. It was just a bad outcome of a play.”
The penalty hardly stopped the Steelers, who needed two plays to spring Bell for a 38-yard touchdown run that made it 24-3.