The Steelers were missing several key starters on Sunday, as they took on the hapless and winless Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field in the 2017 regular season finale.
However, despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, receiver Antonio Brown, center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and defensive end Cameron Heyward sitting out Sunday’s finale, Pittsburgh prevailed, 28-24, to finish the regular season 13-3, the team’s best record since 2004.
Starting in place of Roethlisberger, fifth-year backup quarterback Landry Jones marched the Steelers offense 72 yards on a scoring drive that culminated in a touchdown run by veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who scampered 29 yards on a reverse to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-0.
While the Browns were forced to punt on their first two possessions, Pittsburgh had its next two series end on an interception by Jabrill Peppers, followed by a stop on fourth and goal, when fullback Roosevelt Nix was stymied at the goal line.
But early in the second quarter, the Steelers went ahead 14-0 on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jones to rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Browns answered right back, driving 74 yards on five plays and drew within a touchdown, on a two-yard plunge by running back Duke Johnson to make it 14-7. The big play on the drive was a 54-yard pass from rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer to receiver Josh Gordon down to the Pittsburgh two-yard line.
Pittsburgh answered immediately, driving 75 yards on eight plays and re-taking a two-touchdown lead on reserve running back Stevan Ridley‘s four-yard score to make it 21-7.
It is worth noting that the drive was kept alive after Browns rookie defensive end Miles Garrett was called for roughing the passer on third and three from the nine.
Cleveland answered right back two plays later, exploiting Pittsburgh’s defense to the tune of a 56-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to receiver Rashard Higgins to make it 21-14 midway through the second quarter.
The score would remain the same at halftime, but Cleveland tied things up on its first series of the third quarter, making it 21-21, after Kizer found Higgins on a five-yard touchdown pass.
But the Steelers re-claimed the lead, when the rookie sensation Smith-Schuster took the next kickoff 96 yards to make it 28-21.
After a Zane Gonzalez 51-yard field goal drew Cleveland to within 28-24, the Browns had several chances to take the lead.
But Pittsburgh’s defense held firm down the stretch, forcing a fumble and interception on the Browns’ next two possessions.
On Cleveland’s final possession of the game, a fourth down pass intended for Corey Coleman was dropped by the wide-open receiver, deep in Pittsburgh territory, and the Steelers escaped with a 28-24 victory to improve to 13-3 on the season, while the Browns ended 2017 as the first winless team since the 2008 Lions finished 0-16.
For the day, Jones completed 23-27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and Smith-Schuster pulled in nine passes for 143 yards and a score, while also contributing to the victory with the aforementioned 96-yard kickoff return.
Reserve running back Ridley carried 17 times for 80 yards and a score.
As for the Steelers defense, it set a regular season record with 56 sacks, as reserve defensive end Tyson Alualu pitched in with two of the unit’s six on the day.
The Steelers enter the postseason as the AFC’s number two seed and will enjoy their first playoff bye since the 2010/11 season.