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Resurgent defense sparks Steelers to third win in row

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers' Cortez Allen celebrates with William Gay after Gay's fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers' Cortez Allen celebrates with William Gay after Gay's fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward celebrates after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff missed a field goal during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward celebrates after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff missed a field goal during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers Troy Polamalu causes Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden to fumble the ball in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers Troy Polamalu causes Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden to fumble the ball in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders downs a Ben Roethlisberger punt on the 1-yard line against the Browns in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders downs a Ben Roethlisberger punt on the 1-yard line against the Browns in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell leans foward for extra yardage in the fourth quarter against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell leans foward for extra yardage in the fourth quarter against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers receiver Antonio Brown avoids the Browns' D'Qwell Jackson (right) and T.J. Ward on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers receiver Antonio Brown avoids the Browns' D'Qwell Jackson (right) and T.J. Ward on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Browns fans have a problem while rolling out a banner in the Dawg Pound before the opening kickoff against the Steelers on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Browns fans have a problem while rolling out a banner in the Dawg Pound before the opening kickoff against the Steelers on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlsiberger pooch punts against the Browns in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlsiberger pooch punts against the Browns in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers' Cameron Heyward reaches out to stiff-arm the Browns' Greg Little after recovering a fourth-quarter fumble Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers' Cameron Heyward reaches out to stiff-arm the Browns' Greg Little after recovering a fourth-quarter fumble Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Browns receiver Josh Gordon fends off Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Browns receiver Josh Gordon fends off Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders celebrates his third-quarter touchdown against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders celebrates his third-quarter touchdown against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers' Curtis Brown grabs his knee after being injured in the third quarter against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers' Curtis Brown grabs his knee after being injured in the third quarter against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger checks on Browns quarterback Jason Campbell after he was injured on a sack and fumble during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger checks on Browns quarterback Jason Campbell after he was injured on a sack and fumble during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor brings down Browns receiver Josh Gordon during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor brings down Browns receiver Josh Gordon during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers receiver Antonio Brown bobbles a pass as Browns cornerback Joe Haden closes in during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers receiver Antonio Brown bobbles a pass as Browns cornerback Joe Haden closes in during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell picks up a first down as Browns cornerback T.J. Ward defends during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell picks up a first down as Browns cornerback T.J. Ward defends during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Browns lineman Jason Pinkston, a Baldwin native and Pitt graduate, cools off on the sideline in the sub-freezing weather during the game against the Steelers on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Browns lineman Jason Pinkston, a Baldwin native and Pitt graduate, cools off on the sideline in the sub-freezing weather during the game against the Steelers on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Browns receiver Davone Bess scores on a 2-point conversion at the pylon next to Steelers cornerback William Gay during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Browns receiver Davone Bess scores on a 2-point conversion at the pylon next to Steelers cornerback William Gay during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers receiver Antonio Brown pulls in a second-quarter pass in front of the Browns' Joe Haden on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers receiver Antonio Brown pulls in a second-quarter pass in front of the Browns' Joe Haden on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers receiver Antonio Brown avoids the Brown's Jordan Poyer on a second-quarter punt return Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers receiver Antonio Brown avoids the Brown's Jordan Poyer on a second-quarter punt return Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers' William Gay defends on a first-quarter pass intended for the Browns' Jordan Cameron on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers' William Gay defends on a first-quarter pass intended for the Browns' Jordan Cameron on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hugs Antonio Brown after Brown's second-quarter touchdown catch Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hugs Antonio Brown after  Brown's second-quarter touchdown catch Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers safety Will Allen celebrates with Troy Polamalu after he forced and recovered a fumble by Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers safety Will Allen celebrates with Troy Polamalu after he forced and recovered a fumble by Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers safety Troy Polamalu recovers a fumble he forced from Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya next to William Gay and Jarvis Jones during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers safety Troy Polamalu recovers a fumble he forced from Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya next to William Gay and Jarvis Jones during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers' Will Allen returns a Browns fumble forced by William Gay during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers' Will Allen returns a Browns fumble forced by William Gay during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers safety Troy Polamalu forces a fumble by Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers safety Troy Polamalu forces a fumble by Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons brings down Browns tight end Jordan Cameron during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons brings down Browns tight end Jordan Cameron during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers receiver Antonio Brown beats the Browns' Joe Haden for a second-quarter touchdown Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers receiver Antonio Brown beats the Browns' Joe Haden for a second-quarter touchdown Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers' Will Allen returns a Browns fumble in the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland. Allen has made the most of his second stint with the Steelers after Dallas released him earlier this season.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers' Will Allen returns a Browns fumble in the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland. Allen has made the most of his second stint with the Steelers after Dallas released him earlier this season.

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Wild ride

A look at the AFC wild-card standings:

Team Record

1. Chiefs 9-2*

2. Titans 5-6*

3. Steelers 5-6

4. Baltimore 5-6

5. San Diego 5-6

6. Jets 5-6

7. Dolphins 5-6

*—top two teams qualify for the playoffs

Tie-breaker scenarios determine standings

Source: ESPN.com

By Alan Robinson
Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, 4:21 p.m.
 

CLEVELAND — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin walked briskly through his locker room and shouted, “Let's go! It's now Tuesday!”

Tomlin, in too much of a hurry to celebrate a 27-11 dismantling of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, was referring to the Steelers' shortened work week in advance of their now all-so-important Thursday night game at Baltimore.

But Tomlin's pointed message also had a hidden meaning. The Steelers' seemingly season-wrecking 0-4 start doesn't matter any longer. What counts are the five games that remain: at Baltimore and Green Bay, at home against Miami, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Despite the franchise's worst start since 1968 and the sub-.500 record, the Steelers are in a virtual tie for the sixth and final AFC wild-card spot.

“We want to be a contender, get ourselves in the postseason,” receiver Antonio Brown said after catching six passes for 92 yards and the game's most important touchdown. “We've got to develop our identity with November and December football.”

All this from a team that went 0-for-September.

How have the Steelers done it, winning three in row and five of seven, to climb into playoff contention?

First, they're taking the ball away rather than turning it over. They've forced four Browns turnovers and had none themselves, a reversal of their 20-14 loss in Cleveland last season in which they committed eight turnovers. Over the past two games they have seven takeaways and no giveaways. They started the season with 11 turnovers and no takeaways.

And an offense that couldn't run the ball early on is averaging 29.5 points over its past four games compared to 14.5 for their first four.

“We're playing good ball. Are we playing like a playoff team? I don't know,” said receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who also had a touchdown catch. “We are on a three-game winning streak, but it doesn't matter if we go out and lose a game here and lose a game there.”

If the Steelers win at Baltimore (5-6) to sweep the season series from the reigning Super Bowl champion, it might be only the beginning.

Sanders believes offensive coordinator Todd Haley's decision to lean on the no-huddle is making a difference. It certainly has to Roethlisberger, who has 11 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his past four games, and Brown, who has 414 yards and four touchdown catches in the same stretch.

“We have a lot of confidence,” Sanders said. “With Ben finding his groove and throwing the football, him being able to read the defense and choose a play, it's becoming really effective for us.”

The Steelers started slowly amid the cold and wind of a late-November day along the lakefront. They were tied at 3-3 until late in the second quarter when Roethlisberger found Brown behind star cornerback Joe Haden on the game's pivotal play, a 41-touchdown pass play that made it 10-3.

Troy Polamalu's forced fumbled gave the Steelers the ball right back, and Shaun Suisham drilled through a 32-yard field goal — one of his two conversions under trying conditions — with seven seconds left in the half.

The game began getting out of hand on Cleveland's initial possession of the second half. William Gay knocked the ball loose with a head-high hit on quarterback Jason Campbell, and Will Allen returned the fumble to the Browns' 4. On the next play, Roethlisberger found Sanders for a touchdown that made it 20-3.

“It was a quick slant,” Sanders said. “I couldn't believe it was that easy.”

Roethlisberger (22 of 34, 217 yards) didn't have a big numbers day as the Steelers started conservatively in the windy weather, leaning on Le'Veon Bell's 80 yards on 23 carries. But Roethlisberger wasn't sacked and didn't thrown an interception.

“We ran the ball early in the no-huddle with the looks they were giving us. Later we started passing,” Bell said. “It depends on what the defense is giving us.”

After Campbell was lifted with concussion symptoms, Polamalu jarred the ball loose from backup quarterback Brandon Weeden and recovered the fumble himself. And Gay returned a Weeden interception 21 yards for a touchdown.

All of a sudden, this looks nothing like the defense that surrendered a franchise-record 55 points and 610 yards to New England only three weeks ago. The Steelers haven't lost since.

“We're playing winning football,” Polamalu said.

Even while the Steelers were dominating, Browns receiver Josh Gordon made 14 catches for 237 yards — the second-most catches and yardage ever against them, and a Browns yardage record. But all those yards and his late, 1-yard touchdown catch did not matter.

“They were being Pittsburgh,” Browns running back Willis McGahee said. “Everybody's saying that they aren't the same Pittsburgh, but at the end of the day, they did what they do best.”

And what they didn't do for the first month of a season in which the Steelers have an opportunity to pull off one of the great comebacks in their history.

If they keep winning.

“It's going to be a huge game,” Bell said of playing in Baltimore on Thursday night. “It's going to be a short week.”

Short week or not, it beats what the Steelers were going through only a few weeks ago: A long, long and seemingly going-nowhere season.

“I think it says a lot about us, our resiliency as the season has gone along,” safety Ryan Clark said. “Thursday is important. And that's the good thing. We've won enough games to make games important. We're not playing for nothing.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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