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Steelers sack their way to 28-24 win over Browns

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And on to the playoffs they go.

It wasn’t the shiniest win of the 2017 season, but a potent defense rush complimented by early offensive prowess kept Pittsburgh (13-3) in the driver’s seat for the 28-24 win over Cleveland (0-16) at a frostbitten Heinz Field Sunday afternoon.

The Browns, who now join only the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to finish a season defeated, had the Steelers on their heels late in the game, but stalled on a 4th and 2 play at the opposing 27-yard line with just under two minutes left in the game, when a wide open Corey Coleman dropped a sideline pass from DeShone Kizer. 

The Steelers would run out the clock on the ensuing drive.

“Great to go undefeated in the North,” said Mike Tomlin.  “It was significant for us.  We realize if we want to do some of the things we have to do it starts with AFC North football, and now we’ll transition and get ready for the single elimination tournament and our participation for it.”

Second-year coach Hue Jackson had a much more futile view of the way his squad ended the season.

“It was very unfortunate there at the end,” the 1-31 coach of Cleveland said.  “Our guys played hard, and I’ve said that all year.  Today is today.  We’ve earned it.  We’ve earned our record.  The organization has.  We just have to move on from it.”

Corralling six sacks on the day, the Steelers eclipsed the single-season sack record of 55 thanks to a DeShone Kizer takedown by Tyson Alualu—his second of the game—with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

“It’s really good to get to be a part of that kind of history,” said Alualu, who put his squad above both the ’94 and ’01 defensive units in the record books. 

"I think it goes back to having a good game plan and just executing," continued Alualu on the effectiveness of the Steelers' pass rush this season.  "This is a good problem to have, having a lot of playmakers on defense.  It can be anybody's day to make some plays."

Kizer, who was on the run for much of the game, finished with a career-best 375 total yards—314 through the air— chucking a pair of touchdowns, including a 56-yard hookup with fifth-string receiver Rashard Higgins midway through the second quarter, making it a 21-14 deficit.

“That’s just too many points, man,” said a frustrated Mike Mitchell.  “I’m thankful that we got the win, but we got to bury a team like that.  It can’t be a four-point game.  We can’t turn the ball over; can’t give up big plays, so I’m pissed off.”

The Browns’ 28 points tied a season-high for the team that brought Pittsburgh to a field goal’s difference in week one.

“We need to get better and fix it,” said Cam Hayward, discussing the 374 total yards surrendered by the defense Sunday.  “Great learning moment.  Something we can bite on and just continue to grow from and learn from.  The best way to learn is through a win.”

The win was secured thanks to the surge of the Steelers’ offense, which was fueled by backup Landry Jones, who finished 23-of-27 with 239 yards and a touchdown- a 20-yard connection to JuJu Smith-Schuster early in the second quarter to make it a 14-0 advantage.

The Jones-to-Smith-Schuster connection accounted for 143 yards on nine hookups, while the receiver also brought a flame from the special teams side, returning a 96-yard kickoff to the house early in the third quarter, breaking a 21-21 tie, and giving Pittsburgh its game-winning score.

“I don’t get to throw to him a lot,” said Jones about his connection with the rookie receiver.  “For some reason, visionally down the field he looks like a big target.  For me to go out there and get him the ball the way we were able to was a good thing.”

The product of USC finished his season with 49 catches for a team’s second-best 774 yards and six touchdowns.

“It’s just confidence with Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones (today,) explained Smith-Schuster of his explosive rookie campaign.  “We have been working this past week to build that chemistry with all of the other guys.  Once you get a feel in a row, you are playing those guys for some amount of time, it finally pays off.”

With a handful of starters inactive for the Steelers, including running back Le’Veon Bell, the offense had a different, but effective flavor of success, including Stevan Ridley, who clipped 80 yards on 17 carries with a touchdown- a four-yard scamper that capped an eight play- 75-yard drive midway through the second quarter, which gave Pittsburgh a 21-7 advantage.

“We are all products of our previous experience, so I’m not going to make a big deal out of that,” mentioned Tomlin on resting his players in an attempt to avoid any further injuries.

After the spread

The Steelers, who opened as a two-touchdown favorite, closed as a 5-point favorite, failing to cover, making their ATS record 7-9, failing to cover 5 of the last 6.

The total, which was set at 38, sailed over with 52-points combined.  The O/U finished 5-10-1 on the year for Pittsburgh. 

Up next

The Steelers await their fate in first round bye mode, as the Wild Card round plays out next weekend.  Heinz Field will play host the following weekend in the AFC Divisional round. 

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