PITTSBURGH - The Cleveland Browns appear to be closing the gap between themselves and the rival Steelers.
They're not there yet, though, not with Ben Roethlisberger able to beat teams two different ways in the same week.
Roethlisberger scrambled 30 yards for a key touchdown during Pittsburgh's second-half comeback, then set up his go-ahead 2-yard TD pass to Heath Miller with an important third-down run as the Steelers rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Cleveland, 31-28, yesterday in a key AFC North matchup.
Roethlisberger's big second half, with two TD passes and some important scrambles, overcame Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson's huge first half and two long Joshua Cribbs kickoff returns.
Pittsburgh (7-2) beat Cleveland (5-4) for the ninth consecutive time, but just barely. Phil Dawson could have tied it, but he was short on a 52-yard field goal attempt with six seconds remaining.
Relying on Roethlisberger's ability to shrug off blitzes and gain yards on plays that appeared to have broken down, the Steelers took a big step toward making the playoffs after going 8-8 last season. Only six days before, Roethlisberger's five touchdown passes led the Steelers to a 38-7 Monday night rout of Baltimore.
"All I ever hear is about [Tom] Brady and Peyton [Manning], but this guy we have here is very special," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He makes plays those guys don't make and that's what makes him so special. He can get out of the pocket, he can create, he's a beast, and we're glad he wears black and gold."
Cleveland led, 21-6, in the first half as Cribbs's 90-yard kickoff return led to one of Anderson's three touchdown passes. But with the Browns offense managing only a single first down and no points in the second half, Roethlisberger's TD scramble put the Steelers up for the first time at 24-21 early in the fourth quarter.
"I was ready to slide . . . but Hines [Ward] was downfield blocking and when I get that close to the end zone, I'm trying to get it," Roethlisberger said.
Still, the Browns were in position to beat Pittsburgh for only the second time in their last 16 games after Cribbs's improbable 100-yard kickoff return touchdown with about 11 minutes remaining. Cribbs fumbled the ball near the goal line and was forced to take off down the Steelers' sideline out of desperation.
"We had him stacked up - it was a fluke and it just happened," the Steelers' Larry Foote said. "It definitely tested our character."
A fluke? Cribbs finished with more yards on kickoff returns (204) than the Browns offense had total yards (163).
"It was a couple of inches from going into [our] end zone and I had to make a decision and live with it," Cribbs said of his 100-yarder.
With the Steelers down, 28-24, Roethlisberger (23 of 34, 278 yards) calmly led the decisive 78-yard scoring drive that lasted eight minutes and featured All-Pro guard Alan Faneca challenging his teammates in the huddle to win it.
Roethlisberger kept the drive going with a 20-yard completion to Miller on third and 18 and his 10-yard run to the 2 on third and 9, before Miller made a one-handed catch for the go-ahead score.
"Their whole philosophy was don't give up the big play, see if Ben could read defenses and take what the defense gave them," said Ward, who had a 12-yard TD catch. "Ben did a tremendous job of it."
The Steelers quickly fell into a bad habit: trading field goals for touchdowns.
They settled for three Jeff Reed field goals in the first half and fell behind, 21-9, as Anderson threw TD passes of 4 yards to Kellen Winslow, 2 to Lawrence Vickers after Cribbs's 90-yard kickoff return, and 16 yards to Braylon Edwards.