Steelers take early division advantage

High wind, rain keep both teams from effectively moving ball, but win puts Steelers atop AFC North

CLEVELAND -- Some things never change. Autumn follows summer, the Allegheny River flows into the Ohio, and the Browns lose to the Steelers.

The Steelers won their 10th in a row against their longtime and close rivals, made it 16 out of 17, and nine out of 10 here since the new Browns returned to play in new Cleveland Browns Stadium.

By doing so, 10-6, last night, the Steelers took early command of the AFC North Division at 2-0 while Cleveland fell to 0-2.

It's as if the Steelers have a second home and it's right here, a two-hour drive from Downtown Pittsburgh.

"For whatever reasons, we feel confident playing here," said receiver Hines Ward, who scored the game's only touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter. "Overall, we like playing in Pitt ... Cleveland."

The Steelers beat the Browns in high wind -- gusts were reported at 60 mph -- rain and, on occasion, comedy.

Cleveland blew a prime scoring chance at the end of the first half and then made a questionable decision in the closing minutes when Browns coach Romeo Crennel opted for a field goal instead of trying for the tying touchdown. The Steelers weren't without mistakes of their own, muffing a kickoff return almost as badly as it can be done.

But Roethlisberger (12 of 19, 186 yards) and Ward hooked up for their third touchdown pass of the season, and Jeff Reed kicked a 48-yard field goal to offset Phil Dawson's two field goals for Cleveland.

Willie Parker also made it two games, two 100-yard rushing efforts. He ran 28 times for 105 yards last night. Rookie Rashard Mendenhall did not play on offense.

The Browns were supposed to challenge for the division title this season but have lost their first two games, both at home, after they went 10-6 last season.

"We're 2-0," Ward said. "Cincinnati and Cleveand are 0-2. They have to catch up to us. It is big. Everybody picked Cleveland as the team to beat. We came on the road and won up here, it speaks volumes for our team. ... We are the division champions from last year."

It was such a game that the home fans booed when the Browns scored for the second time. It came when Crennel, on fourth-and-7 at the Steelers' 20, opted to kick a field goal with 3:21 left and the Browns trailing, 10-3. Dawson kicked it and the fans cut loose with their displeasure.

The Browns still needed a touchdown to avoid losing, just as they did before the kick. But the Steelers used up all but 26 seconds on a long drive that ended at the Browns' 26 and Cleveland ended feebly when Aaron Smith sacked Derrick Anderson for the second time.

The Steelers did not fault Crennel for kicking rather than trying to tie it with just over three minutes left.

"I think it was a smart choice," Smith said.

"I think we would have made a play," safety Ryan Clark said of the Browns' choice not to run a play on fourth down. "That's what our defense did all night."

Roethlisberger and Ward hooked up for the game's only touchdown in the second quarter, and it came on third down and ended what was becoming a monotonous game between the longtime rivals in difficult weather.

The game was scoreless after the first quarter. Then Bryant McFadden intercepted his first pass of the season at the Cleveland 30 early in the second when Anderson badly underthrew Braylon Edwards with the strong wind to his back. The Steelers drove to the Cleveland 40 after the interception and faced a fourth-and-1 there. Parker picked up 12 around right end. Santonio Holmes (five catches, 94 yards) caught a 1-yard pass to the 12.

Ward then dropped a pass in the end zone on second down from the 11. Roethlisberger went right back to his veteran receiver on third down and Ward beat cornerback Terry Cousins badly, broke wide open into the end zone and hung on this time for the score, his third touchdown catch of the season.

"To have that drop, to come back on the next play and call my number again, shows the confidence they have in me," Ward said.

The Browns strung together a nice drive at the end of the half, but in true Browns recent tradition, they muffed it. With a third down at the 12, Anderson sneaked 1 yard for the first down.

There were eight seconds left and Crennel opted to try one pass into the end zone figuring if it failed, he would still have time to kick a short field goal.

Troy Polamalu upset those plans when he made a diving interception at the 3 on a low Anderson pass intended for Syndirc Steptoe as time ran out.

"It sucks the wind out of them a little bit," Smith said of that play.

Browns fans loudly booed their team as it left the field at halftime. It wasn't so bad, taking one shot at the end one, but Anderson did not even do that, throwing it short. Had Steptoe caught it and been tackled before the goal line, the half would have ended, too, because the Browns had no timeouts left.

The Steelers scored for the second time when Reed kicked his 48-yard field goal midway through the third quarter for a 10-0 lead. That was not a gimme field goal, either, with the wind gusts at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The Steelers moved into field-goal position based solely on one play. Holmes caught a 48-yard pass that Roethlisberger threw from the 16. Holmes had to fight off cornerback Brandon McDonald to catch the high and deep pass.

As the game wore on, it became quite evident that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was reluctant to use Mendenhall. He did not play other than to return kickoffs as the Steelers used a steady diet of Willie Parker. And the rookie even had trouble returning kickoffs.

He stumbled trying to field one in the third quarter and fell down when he was bumped by teammate Carey Davis. By the time the Browns missed two good attempts to cover the ball, it rolled out of bounds at the Steelers' 2. It was the worst kickoff return by a Steelers rookie since Barry Foster let the ball bounce as if it were a punt in San Francisco in 1990 and the 49ers recovered deep in Steelers territory.

Cleveland finally scored with the help of two personal fouls on the Steelers defense. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley was called for roughing the passer when he slammed into Anderson and drove him into the ground just after he released a pass that Braylon Edwards caught. The penalty and catch made it a 25-yard play to the Steelers' 34.

Later in the drive, linebacker James Farrior was penalized for taunting, moving the ball 10 yards to the Steelers' 11.

Dawson ended the drive by kicking his 31-yard field goal to put the Browns within a touchdown of the lead. They would get no closer.

Ed Ed Bouchette can be reached at . First Published September 15, 2008 4:30 AM


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