Determined Steelers keep cool, deliver knockout blow to Browns
Nobody swung a helmet in a fit of rage. No punches were thrown in retaliation. The fighting that took place 17 days earlier in Cleveland didn’t resurface.
The Pittsburgh Steelers kept their cool Sunday in the rematch with the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. That worked to their advantage even when they fell behind by 10 points in the first half.
Showing the resiliency and determination they lacked in the first meeting, the Steelers recovered from a sluggish start to defeat the Browns, 20-13, and maintain their position as the AFC’s No. 6 playoff seed.
The win, the sixth in the past seven games for the Steelers (7-5), avenged a 21-7 defeat in Cleveland on Nov. 14, a loss that was marred by the fight between Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph in the waning seconds.
The Browns (5-7), favored to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh for the first time in 30 years while trying to sweep them in a season series for the first time since 1988, had their three-game winning streak snapped.
“We get the last laugh,” outside linebacker Bud Dupree said. “That’s always fun.”
So was the way the Steelers maintained their home domination of the Browns, who haven’t won at Heinz Field since 2003.
Led by Devlin “Duck” Hodges in his second NFL start, the Steelers overcame a 10-0 deficit in the second quarter by scoring 20 unanswered points, including two touchdowns, which the offense hadn’t generated in a game since Oct. 28.
“We did a good job of sticking together,” guard David DeCastro said. “We’ve been through it before with this team, this year. It’s been a weird year, but somehow we’re 7-5.”
Hodges is 2-0 while starting in place of Rudolph, who was benched in the third quarter last Sunday at Cincinnati. He passed for 212 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“I thought he played his tail off,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The defense, after giving up two long scoring drives on the Browns’ first three series, regrouped and yielded three points over the final two-and-a-half quarters while collecting five sacks and two more takeaways. Baker Mayfield, the former No. 1 overall pick, turned the ball over twice, one more than his undrafted free agent counterpart for the Steelers.
The Steelers won their second game in a row without a trio of Pro Bowl offensive players. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner sat out again with injuries, and center Maurkice Pouncey served the second game of his two-game suspension for fighting with Garrett.
Two days after Browns coach Freddie Kitchens was spotted wearing a “Pittsburgh Started It” T-shirt — a reference to the melee — many Steelers players arrived wearing “Free Pouncey” sweatshirts.
Pouncey was awarded the game ball via video chat after the game.
“All of that outside noise, all of the hoopla, it doesn’t matter,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “You have to take care of business on the field. I know we wore shirts. We care about our guy, and we get our guy back next week, but at the end of the day, we have to get the job done on the field because that’s what we get judged by.”
The verdict wasn’t weighing in the Steelers’ favor after 22 minutes. The Browns owned a 10-0 lead while amassing 147 yards on three drives compared to 4 on the Steelers’ first two. That’s when the offense got creative. Hodges connected with James Washington (four catches, 111 yards) for 31 yards on a free play. A Diontae Johnson reverse gained 17 yards, and two runs by Jaylen Samuels out of the wildcat formation set up Chris Boswell’s 39-yard field goal with 2 minutes, 56 seconds left before halftime.
The Steelers got the ball back inside the 2-minute warning, and Hodges directed a five-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that tied it 10-10 on Washington’s tumbling 30-yard touchdown catch in the end zone.
“It was good to get that momentum,” Hodges said, “and keep that momentum coming out of the second half.”
The Steelers took their first lead, 17-10, on the opening drive of the third quarter on Benny Snell’s 1-yard run. Hodges threw a 44-yard completion to Washington, and a third-down pass interference penalty on Browns cornerback Denzel Ward in the end zone set up Snell’s score.
Dupree forced a fumble, which Heyward recovered on the next drive, and the Steelers took advantage with Boswell’s 29-yard field goal to make it 20-10 with 13:48 left.
The Browns countered with Austin Seibert’s 34-yard field goal with 7:30 left. It ended a scoreless drought that spanned four series in which the Browns gained just 54 yards.
“We knew what we were messing up on,” Dupree said. “It would be different if we couldn’t stop them at all, but we knew exactly what we were doing.”
Hodges’ stiffest test came when the Steelers took over at their 1 with 5:35 left. After Snell, who had a game-high 63 yards rushing, gained 11 yards, Hodges threw third-down completions to Johnson and Vance McDonald to keep the clock rolling. The Browns got the ball back with 1:45 left, but Joe Haden’s interception on a deep pass ended that threat.
The game ended with Hodges taking a knee and, unlike the previous matchup, no players talking trash or being escorted off the field for extracurricular activities.
“It didn’t seem like there was a lot of talking during the game,” Hodges said. “We knew that we had to come out and win the game. That was the talking that we wanted to do. We wanted to win the game. No matter how much you talk, if you don’t win … it was good to just get the win.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .