PITTSBURGH – When the Cleveland Browns go and review the film of the second half from the Steelers game, they'll see themselves as the team Mike Pettine had envisioned all along: full of resiliency and extreme mental toughness.
Trailing, 27-3, at the half, the Browns roared back scoring 24 unanswered points. However, it was too little, too late as the Steelers were able to pull out a 30-27 victory in the season-opener at Heinz Field.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with Markus Wheaton for a 20-yard pass to set up Shaun Suisham's 41-yard field goal as time expired.
"We're 0-1," said Browns head coach Mike Pettine. "I told the team this is a pass-fail league. We failed. I'm proud of the effort in the second half, but it's a valuable lesson to learn. If you're behind 24 points at halftime, I don't know what the percentages are of coming back and winning, I guarantee you it's probably right around one."
The Browns came 40 seconds away from becoming that one percent. If you missed the final minute and the first half, you would've thought the Browns steamrolled the Steelers.
From the moment the second half began, quarterback Brian Hoyer led an up-tempo no huddle attack, catching the Pittsburgh defense off-guard. Hoyer's quick-hitting passes to Andrew Hawkins teamed with rookie running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, not only took the Browns off life support, it nearly won them the game. The Browns first touchdown drive of the season (on the opening drive of the third quarter) took only six plays and one minute and 33 seconds off the clock.
Cleveland's much anticipated running attack did not disappoint. Two of Crowell's first three NFL carries turned into touchdowns, including a gorgeous 15-yard scamper, where the Steelers weren't able to lay a finger on the undrafted rookie. Crowell may have gotten the points, but it was West's powerful running style which Pittsburgh had no answer for. Used almost exclusively in the second half, the rookie from Towson still managed to eclipse the 100-yard mark.
Crazily, the comeback was without two of the Browns' best players. A knee injury sidelined starting running back Ben Tate, while a flared up shoulder kept tight end Jordan Cameron off the field.
The Browns' defense deserves just as much credit for the second half response. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a blow torch to the secondary in the first half, launching 278 yards on dart-like accuracy. But just like Cleveland's offense, the second half was a brand new ball game. The Browns tightened their coverage and Pittsburgh started playing not to lose. Sacks from Chris Kirksey, Armonty Bryant and Jabaal Sheard showed that the Browns activated a war in the trenches – and they began winning it.
"There are no moral victories in this league, but I was proud of the resolve and the character that showed up," said Pettine.
There is another side to this story, though. When the Browns review the film of the first half, the might want to destroy it.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came firing out the gates, completing seven of his first eight passes for 153 yards. The Pittsburgh aerial attack was executed almost to perfection, using an array of short screens passes and deep throws to stretch the secondary. Roethlisberger's pinpoint accuracy coupled with Cleveland's secondary struggles was a recipe for disaster early on.
But there was a brief moment where the game could've flipped. Linebacker Karlos Dansby temporarily thwarted Pittsburgh's passing attack, picking off a Roethlisberger missile on the sideline.
With the football on the Pittsburgh 34-yardline and only trailing, 10-3, in the second quarter, the Browns had their opening. But the offense did not grasp onto the momentum handed to them by Dansby. Hoyer was sacked on second-down and after three plays Cleveland punted the football away.
And after that, the Steelers put the foot on the gas pedal and did not let up.
With Browns blitzers draped all around him, Roethlisberger beautifully rolled to his right and with the flick of his wrist he found Antonio Brown in the back of the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown. Minutes later in the second quarter, running back Le'Veon Bell got involved, galloping for a shifty 38-yard touchdown right up the middle.
As the teams ran into the locker room for halftime, the Browns mustering a touchdown – let alone any type of comeback – did not seem in the realm of possibility. The fight that the Browns showed in Pittsburgh is going to be a building block not only for the 2014 season, but for the entire Mike Pettine era.