James Conner, Antonio Brown lift Steelers past Browns for 3rd straight win
James Conner did something Sunday that Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis never accomplished in distinguished careers that landed them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And, no, Le’Veon Bell never has done it, either.
Conner became the first player in Pittsburgh Steelers history to rush for at least 100 yards and score two touchdowns in three consecutive games, reaching the milestone in a 33-18 victory against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
Conner rushed for a career-high 146 yards, scored two second-half touchdowns and finished with 212 scrimmage yards while helping the Steelers (4-2-1) win their third a row to maintain their hold on first place in the AFC North heading into next weekend’s game at Baltimore (4-4).
With the midpoint of the season a week away, Conner has 599 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Only Harris in 1976 had as many rushing scores through seven games.
“He has a focus about him,” guard Ramon Foster said. “He wants to be good. He wants to be the guy. You can tell it’s him him. I enjoy watching him. He runs with a passion that’s out of this world.”
Conner almost singlehandedly willed the Steelers to the end zone on a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter after the Browns had pulled within 16-12 thanks to a gaffe on a free kick that gave Cleveland the ball on the Steelers 24.
Held to 36 yards on 12 carries to that point, Conner gained 60 yards on the drive, breaking off runs of 30, 16 and 2 yards before scoring on a 12-yard run around right end.
“It’s just the love of the game, really,” Conner said. “Just doing what I love to do. ... The passion and energy just came out, just doing what I love to do.”
When the teams played in Week 1, Conner rushed for 135 yards, but it was his fumble midway through the fourth quarter that helped the Browns come back from a 21-7 deficit in an eventual 21-21 tie.
This time, Conner made sure history wouldn’t repeat itself. He burst through the Browns defense for a 22-yard touchdown run that hiked the Steelers’ lead to 33-12 with 2:10 remaining.
“Awesome,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’m proud of him. It was so much fun to watch him go to work and be successful and hear the crowd love on him.”
The Steelers got off to a slow start, trailing 6-0 after the first quarter while being outgained 119 yards to 16 by the Browns (2-5-1), who were hoping to win at Heinz Field for the first time since 2003.
After not getting a first down on their first three drives, the Steelers found the end zone on the fourth when Roethlisberger escaped pressure and threw a 43-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to Antonio Brown.
The two also hooked up for a 1-yard score with 10 seconds left in the first half to finish off a 16-play, 87-yard drive that took 7 minutes, 12 seconds off the clock. Brown finished with six catches for 74 yards, and he has five touchdown receptions in the past three games.
After the first quarter, the Steelers defense held the Browns to 43 yards until their 75-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes that set the final margin. Even so, the defense allowed a season-low 237 total yards and haven’t given up more than 324 during the winning streak.
Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield completed 22 of 36 passes for 180 yards. He was sacked twice and intercepted once by former Browns cornerback Joe Haden.
“They did a good job of mixing their stuff up,” Mayfield said. “They did a good job of bringing the right blitzes and getting into our protections and freeing up different guys. They bring one guy and make it look like they are bringing somebody else. That is just good coaching and good execution on their part.”
The only time the Browns threatened in the second half was after a holding call on offensive lineman Desmond Harrison resulted in a safety that gave the Steelers a 16-6 lead. Miscommunication on the free kick led to the ball bouncing untouched to the Steelers 24 where the Browns pounced on it. Aided by three penalties, the Browns pulled within 16-12 on Mayfield’s 1-yard toss to Antonio Callaway.
Conner took over from there, scoring his first touchdown with 2:42 left in the third quarter to provide a 23-12 cushion. His second touchdown put him in the record books. No NFL back has exceeded 100 yards with two touchdowns in a three-game span since Tennessee’s Chris Johnson in 2009.
“It’s contagious when he’s running like that,” guard David DeCastro said. “He’s hitting the holes. You’re barely touching your guy, and he’s by you.”
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