PITTSBURGH The Cleveland Browns did almost everything possible to beat the rival Steelers. They seized a 15-point lead, forced a key turnover and twice got long kickoff returns from Joshua Cribbs even as Pittsburgh tried to kick away from him.
What the Browns couldn't defend was, of all things, Ben Roethlisberger's legs in Pittsburgh's 31-28 win Sunday.
Roethlisberger scrambled 30 yards for a key touchdown during Pittsburgh's second-half comeback, then set up his own go-ahead 2-yard TD pass to Heath Miller with an important third-down run as the Steelers rallied.
In a game that meant a two-game swing in the AFC North the Browns (5-4) would have tied the Steelers (7-2) by winning Roethlisberger's big second half overcame Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson's huge first half.
Pittsburgh beat Cleveland for the ninth consecutive time. Barely.
Cleveland opened a 21-6 lead in the first half with the help of Cribbs' 90-yard kickoff return that led to one of Anderson's three touchdown passes before halftime. After Roethlisberger's long scramble put the Steelers in the lead for the first time early in the fourth quarter, Cribbs fumbled a kickoff inside his own 5. He picked it up mostly out of desperation and somehow wedged his way down Pittsburgh's sideline for a 100-yard scoring return and an improbable 28-24 lead.
But Roethlisberger, who had run for only 86 yards all season before gaining 49 yards on three runs, led a decisive 78-yard scoring drive. It lasted 8 minutes and was kept going by his 10-yard run to the 2 on third-and-9. He then found Miller for his second touchdown pass, giving Roethlisberger a career-high 22 scoring passes with seven games to play.
Phil Dawson could have tied it, but he missed a 52-yard field goal attempt after the snap was high with 6 seconds remaining.
The Browns were trying for their first four-game winning streak since 1994, also the last time they had a winning record when they played rival Pittsburgh past midseason.
Despite allowing more points than any NFL team, the Browns accomplished their turnaround with a big-play offense led by Anderson (16-of-35, 123 yards), who replaced Charlie Frye during their season-opening 34-7 loss at home to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers, playing six days after their 38-7 Monday night rout of Baltimore, 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.
Anderson stood up to Pittsburgh's blitz in the first half. On Cleveland's first possession, he converted four times on third downs on a 16-play drive capped by a 4-yard scoring pass to Kellen Winslow on Cleveland's opening possession.
Anderson also took advantage of Cribbs' 90-yard kickoff return to hit Lawrence Vickers on a 2-yard scoring pass. Brodney Pool's interception of Roethlisberger led to Anderson's 16-yard scoring pass to Braylon Edwards along the right sideline.
The Browns should have known no lead against Pittsburgh is comfortable, given their nine consecutive losses to the Steelers and 15 losses in 16 games counting a January 2003 wild-card playoff game.
No lead is safe, either, with a Cleveland defense that has allowed six of nine opponents to score 30 or more points.
Anderson, so effective throwing downfield in the first half, couldn't generate a single first down in the second half until 49 seconds remaining in the game.
Jamal Lewis' fumble at the Browns' 38 led to Roethlisberger's 12-yard scoring pass to Ward midway through the third that made it 21-16. Roethlisberger (23-of-34, 278 yards) put the Steelers into the lead, scrambling for the 30-yard touchdown run on a third-and-10 when a Browns blitz left the entire left side of the field open for him.
Willie Parker, who ran for a club record 223 yards against Cleveland last season, finished with 105 yards on 25 carries, the seventh running back to gain more than 100 against the Browns.