PITTSBURGH — T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith knew what was coming. Maybe the Cleveland Browns should have, too. It's the same thing that always seems to be coming when they visit Pittsburgh in the regular season.
A loss. This one painful in multiple ways.
The Steelers star linebackers combined for a scoop-and-score midway through the fourth quarter to pull out an improbable 26-22 victory on Monday night.
The Steelers extended their regular-season home winning streak against their AFC North rivals to 20 and counting in a victory overshadowed by a serious left knee injury to Cleveland star running back Nick Chubb.
The four-time Pro Bowler's sixth NFL season ended two plays into the second quarter after the knee bent awkwardly when he was hit low by Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. He went to the hospital as a precaution before returning to Cleveland.
“We feel for Nick as a person,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “He's a great football player as we know and an even better person. We will support him every step of the way."
Even with their leader sidelined, the Browns were protecting a three-point lead and facing second-and-9 at their own 20 with 7:06 remaining when Watt and Highsmith went to work. The two longtime teammates sensed a play-action pass was coming, so they widened their stance a little bit in an effort to get a better attack angle off the edge.
Highsmith — who began the night with a 30-yard pick-6 on the first offensive snap — blew past Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills and chopped the ball out of DeShaun Watson’s hands as the Cleveland quarterback ran to his right. The Browns’ fourth and final turnover ended up in the hands of Watt, who ran untouched across the goal line before high-stepping in celebration.
“Splash,” Watt said. “I think that's what we talk about is creating splash as a defense.”
And the Browns went splat, an annual event in Pittsburgh for two decades, save for a breathtaking upset in the first round of the 2020 playoffs.
Cleveland hoped that victory would serve as the start of something. Instead, it's been more of the same. The Browns have failed to reach the postseason each of the last two years and now must find a way forward without one of their unquestioned leaders.
Jerome Ford, Chubb's replacement, ran for 106 yards and caught a 3-yard touchdown pass, but Cleveland's miscues cost it a chance to win at Pittsburgh in the regular season for the first time since 2003.
Watson completed 22 of 40 for 235 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was also flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct for grabbing the facemask of a Steeler while running. The penalties cut a pair of promising drives short.
The Browns were penalized eight times for 81 yards and turned it over four times, two of which ended with a member of one of the best edge-rusher tandems in the NFL celebrating in the end zone.
The Steelers avoided their first 0-2 start since 2019 even though their offense continued to sputter. Kenny Pickett connected on 15 of 30 passes for 222 yards, a third of them coming on a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown by George Pickens in the second quarter that briefly brought the Acrisure Stadium crowd to life.
Cleveland still appeared to be in good position when Ford raced 69 yards to set up a 1-yard dive by Pierre Strong that put the Browns ahead 22-19 midway through the third quarter.
Pittsburgh's offense did next to nothing for most of the second half, leading to chants from the crowd to fire coordinator Matt Canada.
Highsmith's bull rush off the edge and Watt's scoop-and-score bailed the Steelers out, making them the second team since 1991 to win a game they were trailing in the fourth quarter despite having negative yardage in the quarter.
“We're not going to apologize for winning,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said.
Maybe, but there is plenty to work on. The Steelers needed multiple defensive touchdowns — the first time they've done in a game since a 23-7 win over Tennessee in 2010 — to survive.
That's not repeatable on a weekly basis. Pittsburgh will worry about that later. Monday night was about finding a way, the way the Steelers always seem to find a way at home when the Browns are on the other side of the field.
“It’s special coming out and just having the performance that we did,” Highsmith said. “But we were far from perfect. We need to be much better.”
Browns: DE Za'Darius Smith exited in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury. ... CB Greg Newsome injured his right elbow in the third quarter.
Steelers: WR/KR Gunner Olszewski went into the concussion protocol in the first half and did not return. ... Fitzpatrick left in the third quarter with a chest injury. ... ILB Elandon Roberts exited in the third quarter with a neck injury.
Browns: Host Tennessee (1-1) next Sunday.
Steelers: At Las Vegas (1-1) next Sunday, when they will try to beat the Raiders on the road for the first time since 1995.