PITTSBURGH — Reggie Hodges couldn’t do much more. Four times the Cleveland Browns punter placed the Pittsburgh offense inside the Steelers 10-yard-line.
Considering the Browns offense was playing with a rookie quarterback and he was playing against the NFL’s best defense, every yard mattered. Early on, Hodges was setting himself up to not only be the game’s Most Valuable Punter, but the Most Valuable Player.
Hodges finished with five punts for 204 yards for a 40.8 average. Yet his excellent punts were for naught. Each time the Steelers re-tilted the field possession in their favor. It seemed as if the Steelers thrived off the poor field possession.
“We have to stand up,” said Browns rookie cornerback Joe Haden, who finished with two tackles, one pass deflection and his first career interception. “Usually, we make the team go the long, hard way. We make them pound it, pound it, pound it and we make them throw routes that go back toward the quarterback. No team can just straight drive the ball with short passes and short runs. Sometimes we give up the big play and we’ve got to stop that.”
Twice the Browns gave up big plays on first down — plays of 20 or more yards — with the Steelers in the shadows of their own goal posts.
“Their punter did a nice job,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “They had us backed up and we were looking at a full field out there for a majority of the early portion of the game. But the guys didn’t blink and continued to work and made the necessary plays for us to have a victory.”
Hodges’ first punt came with eight minutes remaining in the second quarter. Haden downed the ball at the Steelers’ 2-yard-line, but on first down, Rashard Mendenhall broke free for a 25-yard run. While the Steelers drive stalled at their own 40-yard-line they got some breathing room, as Pittsburgh as able to pin the Browns at their own 16-yard-line.
The inability to keep the Steelers offense pinned deep in its own territory finally burned the Browns for points in the third quarter. Pittsburgh led 7-3 when the Steelers had first and 10 at its own 4-yard-line. On first down, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace for 50 yards down the right sideline. Four plays later Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for an 8-yard touchdown pass and a 14-3 Steelers’ lead.
“When you have them backed up that’s a good thing,” coach Eric Mangini said. “It should be a good thing. It’s disappointed to have them backed up and then they score a touchdown. You put yourself in a good position and then it plays out that way, it’s just not good.”
The Browns blitzed on the 50-yard hookup between Wallace and Roethlisberger, and the good news was Cleveland’s embattled defensive back, Eric Wright,was not on coverage because he was blitzing. Still, the drive did not end favorably for Wright. Hines Ward caught an 8-yard touchdown pass with 3:19 left in the third quarter. Wright guarded Ward. Early in the first half, Wright was beat by Wallace on a 29-yard touchdown pass for the game’s first touchdown.
“I feel like I’m in a good position,” Wright said. “It’s frustrating. I have to have short-term memory. I thought I was in a good position, I turned around to find the ball and Wallace had it.”
Despite more secondary mishaps, the Browns trailed 14-3 when the punting game became their hindrance. After the Browns forced an incomplete pass on a third and 12 from their own 37-yard line, Pittsburgh called on its punt team. The Steelers were forced to punt three consecutive times because of penalties. On the third punt, Chansi Stuckey muffed the catch and the ball was recovered on the Browns 13-yard-line. Four plays later Mendenhall scored on a 2-yard touchdown run and Pittsburgh took a commanding 21-3 lead with 5:54 left in the game.
Stuckey was returning punts in place of Josh Cribbs, who left the game in the first half with a head injury.
“I have respect for Josh and what he does,” Stuckey said. “The punter got a lot of movement on the ball, but it is still my job to catch the ball. It was windy, but it was still a catchable ball and I have to catch it.”