PITTSBURGH: The Browns seemingly had the Pittsburgh Steelers right where they wanted them, though coach Pat Shurmur’s men could never land a knockout punch.
They failed to score off three turnovers, capitalize on a goal-line stand and take advantage of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s less-than-ideal condition in the second half. Those squandered opportunities led to the Browns’ 14-3 loss Thursday night at Heinz Field.
“The guys battled unbelievably,” Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs said. “I felt the fear that the Steelers had. They didn’t want to lose to us.”
The Steelers (10-3) have won 15 of their past 16 and 21 of their past 23 games against the Browns (4-9). Quarterback Colt McCoy fell to 0-8 against AFC North teams, and the Browns have yet to beat a divisional opponent this season.
With Roethlisberger hobbled with a high ankle sprain throughout the second half, the Browns were able to hang around until crunch time. Free safety Mike Adams intercepted a pass from Roethlisberger and returned it 29 yards to the Browns’ 44-yard line with 7:10 left in the fourth quarter.
During the ensuing drive, Steelers linebacker James Harrison used his helmet to hit McCoy in the face mask and was called for a 15-yard, roughing-the-passer penalty. McCoy also hurt his left hand when Harrison hit him. He missed two plays after absorbing the blow and returned on first-and-goal at the Steelers’ 5.
“I don’t think he was groggy,” Shurmur said of McCoy. “He was fine to go back in.”
Three plays later, McCoy’s pass intended for wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was intercepted by cornerback William Gay in the end zone.
“They pressured us and the pocket kind of collapsed, and I wasn’t able to completely step into the throw,” said McCoy, who completed 18-of-35 passes for 209 yards with two interceptions. “I saw [Massaquoi] one-on-one, and I just tried to give him a chance to make the catch. I just didn’t get enough on it, underthrew it and Gay made a nice play. Basically, that was the game.”
The Steelers capitalized two plays later, when Roethlisberger connected with wide receiver Antonio Brown for 79-yard touchdown pass. Cornerback Joe Haden slipped and fell while covering Brown, who ran 66 yards after the catch to complete the play and help to give the Steelers a 14-3 lead with 2:52 left in the fourth quarter.
“I’m a lot better than that,” Haden said. “It’s not excuse. I slipped. I fell. That’s my bad.”
Roethlisberger, who left the stadium with a walking boot on his left leg, completed 16-of-21 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He improved to 13-1 against the Browns.
“He’s a tough player and competitor,” McCoy said. “He does a really good job.”
After a scoreless third quarter, the Steelers marched to the Browns’ 2. Strongside linebacker Chris Gocong was involved in four consecutive tackles as the Browns repeatedly stuffed Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall and completed their fourth goal-line stand of the season with 10:39 left in the fourth quarter.
“It was just backyard football,” Gocong said. “They just ran right at us, and we came out with the result we wanted.
“We thought we were going to win it. It’s one of those things. If four or five plays had turned out differently, we could’ve taken this game.”
The Browns had two takeaways early in the second quarter, which helped them to stay within striking distance. Still, they trailed 7-3 at halftime because they didn’t make the Steelers pay for their mistakes.
“We’ve gotta get points out of those [turnovers],” said running back Montario Hardesty, who had 11 carries for 24 yards. “We’ve gotta score. That’s something that we’re not getting done, and we need to get that done. The defense played great, and we’ve gotta back the defense up. We get ourselves into a position to go in for a score, and we’ve gotta capitalize on that. We’ve gotta finish.”
Neither team scored in the second quarter, though the Browns seemingly gained an advantage with 5:59 left before halftime, when defensive lineman Scott Paxson sacked Roethlisberger and sidelined him for the remainder of the first half. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch entered the game, but Roethlisberger returned to start the third quarter.
“I knew he didn’t see me, and I got a pretty good hit on him,” Paxson said. “I know [defensive lineman Brian] Schaefering got him from the front, and I got him from the back.
“He’s a warrior. I wasn’t surprised at all when we came out at halftime, and I saw him limping out there. I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ I wasn’t surprised at all. Ben’s a fighter.”
Several Browns players also suffered injuries. Tight end Benjamin Watson suffered a concussion with 3:37 left in the second quarter and was ruled out for the rest of the game. Wide receiver Josh Cribbs hurt his groin in the first half and did not return. Rookie fullback Owen Marecic also suffered a concussion, and rookie strong safety Eric Hagg hurt his left eye.
The Browns’ egos are bruised, too. They failed to score a touchdown even though their offense showed promise out of the gate against the Steelers, who entered the game with the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
McCoy completed passes of 33 yards to tight end Evan Moore and 25 yards to Cribbs, leading the Browns deep into the red zone during the first drive of the game. On second-and-goal from the Steelers’ 2, McCoy scrambled and ran up the middle for what the officials ruled a 2-yard touchdown. However, the call was reversed after the officials reviewed the play and determined McCoy’s arm was down inches short of the goal line.
On third-and-goal from the Steelers’ 1, linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrior stuffed Browns running back Peyton Hillis, who finished with 10 carries for 25 yards, for a 1-yard loss. The Browns then settled for Phil Dawson’s 20-yard field goal, which gave them a 3-0 advantage with 9:22 left in the opening quarter.
“We tried to run the ball off tackle, and we didn’t get in,” Shurmur said. “I felt like it was important for us to get points. At some other point in the game, I may have thought about going for it [on fourth down], but early in the game, first drive of the game, you want to get points.”
The Steelers struck back during the next series. They capped their 10-play, 78-yard march when Roethlisberger threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery with 6:12 left in the first quarter. Gocong appeared to be caught out of position in coverage, allowing Cotchery to make the catch and sneak into the end zone. Meanwhile, defensive end Jayme Mitchell hit Roethlisberger a split-second after he got rid of the ball.
The Steelers never trailed again. And after falling to the Baltimore Ravens 24-10 on Sunday, the Browns suffered their second loss in five days.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj..