The Steelers enter the second half leading the Browns 21-14. While they elected to rest five healthy starters, mostly on offense, the biggest issue in the game has been the starting secondary, which has allowed two passing plays of 50–plus yards, the two longest plays for the Browns through the air on the season.
The biggest story of the second half has been rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is having a big game so far with seven receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown. He is approaching some franchise rookie records with season totals of 56 receptions, 901 yards, and seven scores. The respective records for each are 61 (Troy Edwards), 910 (Jimmy Orr), and nine (Louis Lipps).
Jabrill Peppers took the opening half kickoff out of the end zone across the 30 to the 32. Isaiah Crowell picked up seven on first down. DeShone Kizer found Josh Gordon for 11 past midfield. Crowell again found space for seven, Sean Spence on the tackle. David Njoku snagged a high pass and forced a missed tackle followed by a sprint for 30-plus yards, setting up first and goal. Joe Haden missed the tackle.
T.J. Watt tripped up Crowell on first down, but still added a couple yards. On second and goal, he was limited to a yard. From the four-yard line, Kizer connected with Higgins for the score, his second of the game, and his career, tying the game at 21 as the Steelers rethink their decision to sit about a quarter of their starters.
And then Smith-Schuste returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for the touchdown, the Steelers’ first kick return for a touchdown since 2010, when Antonio Brown in the second game of the season–his first touch–did so on a gadget return that included an early lateral.
Peppers got off another good return, but it was aided by a hold, and the rookie safety was gimpy coming off the field. Now at just the 12, Kizer’s first pass was wide. Watt dropped Crowell for a loss of five on second down. Now third and 15, Kizer scrambled once again and picked it up with 16 yards.
To the 23, Kizer kept it on the read option and got away from Bud Dupree for a solid gain of five, but there was a hold on Corey Coleman, making it first and 15 from the 17. Gordon picked up 17 on the throw for another conversion on long distance. Duke Johnson this time was held to two. Mike Hilton tackled Higgins a yard shy of the first. On third and one, he converted.
L.J. Fort recorded the team’s fifth sack of the game after that. Then Mike Hilton lost an interception. On third and 10 from the 23, Kizer scrambled once again but did not convert. A hold negated the run anyway. Why they accepted the penalty rather than take fourth down, I don’t know. Now third and 20 from the 33, Kizer’s pass was incomplete. Rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez from 51 yards out was good, making it 28-24.
Martavis Bryant was put back on the next return, but it was fielded by Fitzgerald Toussaint, who got to the 23. Smith-Schuster picked up a six-yard reception on first down, now four yards from breaking the franchise rookie receiving record. Jones under pressure threw hot to Toussaint for an incompletion. On third and four, he connected with Bryant for 17, his fifth catch for 57 yards in the game, near midfield.
Then Jones fumbled the snap and took a substantial loss, with Chris Hubbard at center. On second and 19, he had nobody but Xavier Grimble open for a short gain to end the third quarter. Hubbard, getting the yips, botched the snap high and wide, resulting in the third sack of the game attributable to a bad exchange. Berry’s punt was fair caught at the 36.
Crowell was held to two on first down, Watt on the tackle. Tyson Alualu then recorded his second sack of the game, the team’s sixth of the game, giving them 56 for the season, which is the most in team history. But then the Browns picked up a first, and then hit on a long play. The only saving grace was William Gay, who with a veteran move punched out the ball, Mike Mitchell recovering.
On the following possession, Smith-Schuster recorded a 10-yard reception that put him over 910 receiving yards on the season, establishing a new team rookie record with 917 and counting. But the drive ultimately faltered and the Steelers punted, having failed to score on offense so far in the second half.
Following a Browns edition of Renegade, Cleveland took over from the 15. Stephon Tuitt was the first to tag Crowell down for a loss of three, but it was a team loss. Joe Haden nearly had a diving interception on the next play. On third and 13, a checkdown to Johnson produced 17, Javon Hargrave unable to make the play behind the line of scrimmage.
Mike Hilton came in on the blitz, making the tackle for a loss of four on a run. From the 26, he came again, Kizer’s pass incomplete, but a flag was thrown for defensive holding on Gay. Kizer was blown up on the blitz by Artie Burns and ended up throwing a diving interception to Sean Davis.
Taking over in Browns territory, Ridley picked up seven on first down. Jones was sacked on second down, his fifth of the game, though a few of those were snap exchange issues. Now third and eight, the backup quarterback picked up another low snap off the ground, barely able to get the ball off to Toussaint for a two-yard gain. Taking a delay of game, Berry’s punt was field at the 15.
With 4:30 remaining, with 85 yards to go, Kizer’s first pass was a screen to Johnson for seven. Looking for Corey Coleman, Burns was able to break up the pass. On third and three, Gordon was left open over the middle for a catch-and-run of 33 near midfield. Johnson then added 10 to the left.
Now at Pittsburgh’s 35, Croweel was tackled after a short gain. Hilton blitzed, but Kizer escaped, gaining just two, hitting the two-minute warning, setting up third and six. Hilton help Johnson short of the first on a pass to set up fourth and two, out of bounds. On the play, Kizer, after taking a timeout, Coleman was unable to catch the pass, resulting in a turnover on downs, dropping a ball right between his hands.
Pittsburgh taking over at the 27, Ridley added one and then over a dozen, with a horse collar penalty on the end of the run, which should just about do it. He was held to a short loss following that, the Browns using their final timeout with 1:31 remaining. Taking a delay of game on fourth and 13 with two seconds remaining, the Steelers executed a two-second kneel down to secure at 13-3 record for them, and an 0-16 record for the Browns.