PITTSBURGH — No matter how you measure it, the Cleveland Browns can’t beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes in an increasingly wide-open Pittsburgh offense and the Steelers benefited from a debatable first-down measurement to beat the rival Browns 27-14 on Sunday, their 12th consecutive victory against their oldest rival.
Roethlisberger, second in the league in passing and on pace for what would easily be his best statistical season, was 23 of 35 for 417 yards in his second career 400-yard game. Hines Ward made eight catches for 159 yards and a touchdown, Santonio Holmes had five for 104 and tight end Heath Miller caught his fourth TD pass in three games.
“He’s in total command of the offense,” coach Mike Tomlin said of Roethlisberger, who has thrown for 1,887 yards and 10 touchdowns in six games. “It’s fun to watch.”
Even if all the turnovers weren’t — four for each team, including two apiece in a span of 1:25 late in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh outgained Cleveland 543-197, yet the Steelers led only 17-14 in the third quarter. And they might not have had that lead if they hadn’t been given a first down after Roethlisberger looked to be stopped inches short on a fourth-down sneak from Cleveland’s 14 late in the second quarter.
TV replays appeared to show the ball short of the stick on a play in which Roethlisberger tried to lure Cleveland offside before slamming headfirst into the middle of the defense. As the Browns players yelled and began running off the field, referee Walt Anderson surprised both teams by signaling first down.
“It was a close play — and we got lucky,” Roethlisberger said.
“I saw all the Cleveland guys arguing and yelling, so it was, well, the referee knows the rules better than I do,” tackle Max Starks said. “If he says first down, it’s a first down.”
Even if the Browns, obviously, didn’t think it was.
“He made the call; you have to live with it,” linebacker David Bowens said. “I don’t know if there was (an explanation). He just said first down and that’s it.”
Anderson explained the TV angle might have been deceptive.
“If you shot that angle from the other side, it might actually look like it’s further in advance of the stake of what it was,” said Anderson, who was certain the call was correct.
Roethlisberger’s apparent 13-yard TD pass to Ward two plays later was overturned on replay because the ball came out of Ward’s hands as he rolled out of bounds, and Pittsburgh settled for the field goal.
Because of the first-down ruling, the Browns trailed 17-14 instead of being tied after driving for only their fourth touchdown on offense in 12 games — they’ve lost 11 — on Derek Anderson’s 1-yard pass to Lawrence Vickers early in the third quarter.
Anderson was 9 of 24 for 122 yards.
“We’re not trying to lose every time we go out here,” Anderson said, referring to Cleveland’s 1-9 record in Heinz Field. “We put tons of hours in and … it’s frustrating. Every single week, it’s frustrating.”
The Steelers, winning their third in a row, made it 24-14 when Roethlisberger hit Ward for 45 yards and Mike Wallace for 21 ahead of Rashard Mendenhall’s 2-yard touchdown run.
“I think we haven’t played our best ball yet and that’s pretty comforting,” Miller said. “We’ve gotten a few wins here without playing our best.”
The Browns’ other score came on Joshua Cribbs’ 98-yard kickoff return late in the second quarter that followed Roethlisberger’s touchdown passes of 8 yards to Miller and 52 to Ward. Cribbs ran untouched along the Steelers’ sideline for his club-record eighth kick return score, six on kickoff returns, and his third against the Steelers.
“I heard ‘Return one for me’ from 1,000 fans back home in Cleveland and I got up for this game,” Cribbs said.
After the flurry of turnovers, Reed kicked a 39-yard field goal, and the Browns gave the ball back yet again — their fourth turnover and 32nd in 12 games — when Anderson was intercepted by Ryan Clark.
Cribbs also was intercepted, by Troy Polamalu, out of the wildcat formation during the first half.
Notes: The Steelers hadn’t produced 500 yards in 50 games — while beating Cleveland 27-7 in 2006. … The Steelers have won 18 of 19 against the Browns, counting a playoff game. … Polamalu, who missed four games with a torn left knee ligament, discarded his protective brace after the pregame warmups. … Browns LB Kamerion Wimbley (flu-like symptoms) did not play after having a sack in three consecutive games. LB D’Qwell Jackson left in the second half with an unspecified shoulder injury. … Roethlisberger threw for 433 yards during a 31-20 loss to Denver in 2006.