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Steelers 21, Browns 18: Ugly Steelers win is nothing to worry about

On the surface, the Steelers’ 21-18, season-opening win in Cleveland Sunday was a lot more interesting than it had to be.

The Browns encapsulated nearly two decades of misery into the first seven minutes of the game. Their first possession ended with a punt that was blocked by Tyler Matakevich and recovered in the end zone by Anthony Chickillo for a touchdown and a 7-0 Steelers lead.

Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer was sacked twice on the Browns’ next series, and it looked like Steelers fans could once again start laughing at the Browns.

It turned out to be no laughing matter, however. The Steelers needed nearly 58 minutes to secure this win over a team they normally have no trouble beating. Does this mean that we need to pump the brakes on the lofty expectations we’ve set for the Steelers? Does this mean the Steelers aren’t Super Bowl material?

No, it doesn’t.

Steelers wins at Cleveland have pretty much been a given. The Steelers are 15-4 there since the franchise re-joined the NFL in 1999. But it doesn’t mean that a Dawg Pounding is a prerequisite for a championship season. In 2008, the Steelers squeaked past the Browns 10-6 and went on to win the Super Bowl.

No, the Steelers didn’t dismantle the Browns Sunday. They just did what they had to do to win a division game on the road, and that’s just as much a mark of a title contender as a dominating performance.

The Steelers didn’t have their best stuff. They had to reach deep into their toolbox to find what they needed to put together this win. The only Steeler to find the end zone aside from the aforementioned Chickillo was Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger. The second one didn’t exactly look planned. Like a kid trying to skim rocks on Lake Erie, Roethlisberger sidearmed the ball to the tight end from two yards out to give the Steelers a 21-10 lead in the third quarter.

James’ two touchdowns are a career high and his six receptions tied his previous mark. It would have been understandable if James were tempted to ask Mike Tomlin “Is that varsity enough for you?”

Chickillo had two sacks to accompany his touchdown. Playing in place of an injured Bud Dupree, Chickillo excelled in a next-man-up role. Newly acquired cornerback Joe Haden also had a sack in his revenge game. Any sack from a cornerback is a nice little bonus.

The Steelers also had contributions from a player who they hope is a consistent source of production. T.J. Watt became the first Steeler with two sacks and an interception in his NFL debut. Watt still needs 74 sacks to pull even with his brother’s career total, but he’s already matched J.J. Watt‘s one interception, although the latter has one pick in a playoff game.

It’s too early to tell if T.J. Watt is anything close to his brother, but one player who has proven to be just as valuable as J.J. Watt is Antonio Brown. The guy who embarrassed the Steelers on Facebook Live in January saved them from an embarrassing loss Sunday with 11 catches for 182 yards.

The Steelers were mired in a 7-7 stalemate when Brown jump-started the offense with a 50-yard reception late in the first half. It was the Steelers’ first play of 20 or more yards. Five plays later, Roethlisberger threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to James to give the Steelers a 14-7 halftime lead.

The defense couldn’t close the deal on this win, allowing the Browns to pull within 21-18 on a Kizer touchdown pass to Corey Coleman and a two-point conversion with 3:40 left in the game. So Brown was the closer, with the help of an offensive line that gave Roethlisberger enough time on the play to keep pondering retirement.

Brown caught a 38-yard pass in triple coverage that essentially burned the Browns’ last two timeouts with two and a half minutes left. After stopping the clock, Hue Jackson unsuccessfully challenged Brown’s catch. Then it was kneel-down time after Le’Veon Bell‘s 15-yard gain before the two-minute warning.

That was Bell’s longest run of the day, and his rusty performance is one of the reasons the Steelers had to fight tooth and nail for this victory. Bell gained 32 yards on 10 carries and earned a knuckle-lashing from a ruler-wielding nun at Saint Vincent College for missing training camp. Another authority clad in black and white — the officials — punished the Steelers for their 13 penalties, docking them 144 yards.

Assuming Bell regains his sea legs and the Steelers clean up their play, they should win games a lot more convincingly.

Sometimes, however, you just have to win ugly, and that’s what the Steelers did Sunday.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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