The Steelers are set to get their season underway in short order as they visit the Cleveland Browns. They will be doing so without Le’Veon Bell, as you all know by now, but they are in a good place on the health front to start the season, with only tight end Vance McDonald being an injury scratch. The inactive list looks like this:
QB Mason Rudolph; TE Vance McDonald; OL Matt Feiler; OL Zach Banner; DL L.T. Walton; CB Coty Sensabaugh; S Marcus Allen
A few interesting choices here. The Steelers have apparently decided that Daniel McCullers offers enough as a defensive lineman to justify dressing him over Walton, who can play any position along the line; or they soured on the latter’s ability to play nose tackle. Sensabaugh not dressing leaves them with four cornerbacks, which presumably means they feel good about where Mike Hilton is injury-wise. Five safeties dress.
The Steelers opened with the ball, James Conner getting the carry for four yards on first down. After a four-yard completion, Roethlisberger could not connect with Antonio Brown, resulting in a three-and-out to start the season. After a short punt from Jordan Berry, the Browns took over at the 36.
Tyrod Taylor connected for six on first down. Under pressure, he threw to David Njoku on second down for just a yard, Jon Bostic on the tackle. Now third and eight after a false start…and then another to make it third and 13…Taylor scrambled for the first down thanks to poor pocket containment.
Near midfield, Taylor looked for Njoku down the field, incomplete. Sean Davis helped break it up, but he should have been flagged for a helmet hit on a defenseless receiver. After a four-yard gain from Carlos Hyde, Mike Hilton broke up the pass for Jarvis Landry to force a punt.
Roethlisberger checked down to Conner on first down, picking up about 12 yards. He made a tackler miss in the backfield to pick up 10 yards on the following play. After getting tripped up in the backfield the ensuing play, Roethlisberger threw to Ryan Switzer short, but he couldn’t hold on with Christian Kirksey draped all over him. Now third and nine, a screen to JuJu Smith-Schuster only picked up a couple yards, and an illegal block in the back would have negated any first down anyway.
Taylor was sacked on the first play of their second series, the whistle having been blown, but T.J. Watt was flagged for a late hit, even though the whistle itself is late. Taylor was off on his first pass after taking a hit to the head. On second down, he slid for just a short gain to set up a third and long. Taylor was wide of his target again on the play, resulting in a punt. Switzer got off a pretty solid return on the ensuing punt to take it toward midfield.
Roethlisberger looked deep for Justin Hunter down the right sideline, but the receiver couldn’t run under it on the wet field. On second down, he misfired to Hunter again. The Steelers drew a neutral zone infraction off Myles Garrett to make it third and five. This time Roethlisberger was able to elevate the ball to Smith-Schuster from out of the slot in man-to-man coverage for a good gain.
Now down to the 18, Roethlisberger scrambled and looked to find Brown, but the rookie Denzel Ward jumped in front of the pass to intercept it.
Taking over at the 10, Hyde got the carry for a short gain. He was stopped after two yards on second down. Now third and six, Duke Johnson picked up the first down on a draw run for 13 yards. Desmond Harrison was flagged for a false start for the second time in the game. Hyde on the screen picked up three to make it third and 10. The Steelers got a tip at the line of scrimmage to force a punt, the pass defensed by Dupree. Switzer’s solid return was negated by a hold.
Starting from their own 12, Conner got the first play of the drive for about four yards. Following another three-yard gain, it was third and three. Roethlisberger scrambled and bought a ton of time before he found Jesse James getting himself open up the right sideline for a big gain.
Now down to the Browns’ 43, Garrett got around Alejandro Villaneuva for the sack, Roethlisberger lucky to hold on to the ball. The throw needed to come sooner. Switzer in the sidecar, he actually gets the ball for a six-yard gain. Now third and seven, the big man scrambled for the first down. He even delivered a stiff-arm in the process heading out of bounds. From the 24, he hit James for 13 off play action, into the red zone for the second time.
Brown got his first touch of the season on a bubble screen for three yards up the right side. Now second and seven, following a timeout, Roethlisberger and Conner could not connect on a quick inside screen. On third down, he scrambled out of the pocket, stumbling, only to fire it out of bounds, but Garrett very foolishly put a hard him on him to give the Steelers a first and goal. He landed with his full body weight.
From the four, Conner ran into the end zone untouched for the first score of his career. His teammates could not be happier for him. Great blocking on the play, Ramon Foster with the kickout block.
Hyde was strung out wide for a loss on first down following a touchback. Joe Haden got lost in coverage against Landry. From the Steelers’ 43, Cameron Heyward dragged Taylor down as he scrambled for a short gain to force third and nine. Davis came up with the interception on an overthrown pass on the play, but Terrell Edmunds was flagged for a hold on the play, resulting in a first down for the Browns instead.
Now at the 37, Hyde worked his way up the middle for about five yards. Nick Chubb lost a yard on second down, making his NFL debut. Now third and six, a shovel pass to Landry picked up just a yard. Josh Gordon was flagged for a personal foul in addition to the play, knocking them out of field goal range. Switzer picked up about three yards vertically and a dozen horizontally to the 11-yard line following the punt.
Roethlisberger looked for it all deep to Brown on first down, but he wasn’t even close, the ball intercepted by Damarious Randall. Brown at least made the tackle.
Taking over at his own 29, Taylor scrambled for three on first down. Darren Fells picked up the first down on the following play. Davis surprisingly made a great open-field tackle to stop the runner a yard short of the first down, then Njoku was flagged before the second and one. Taylor kept it on the following play, making Vince Williams miss for the first down.
Now across midfield, Hyde was stuffed for no gain. Jon Bostic came on the blitz and recorded the sack for a loss of seven. Johnson got the draw for a short down on third and 17. The punt settled inside the 10 to be downed.
From the nine, a lead block by Villanueva on a screen to Brown up the left sideline picked up about 11. Conner made a tackler miss for 15 down to the two-minute warning to the 35. He followed that up with a 12-yard run up the middle. Following an eight-yard draw, Roethlisberger found Smith-Schuster for a short gain and the first down, using their second timeout with under a minute to go.
From the 37, five wide, Brown could not maintain possession out of bounds for an incompletion. Roethlisberger’s second-down pass went off the hands of the usually-reliable James, intercepted by the rookie Ward, who returned the pass to midfield.
Dupree made the tackle in the backfield on the ensuing opening play of the drive for a loss of seven. Dupree got the sack, stripping the ball out, but the Browns recovered. That was good enough at least to end the half, Pittsburgh nursing a 7-0 lead that should be at least 13-0 if not for two interceptions in Browns territory.